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Black Friday: What to find at Walmart on Thanksgiving night

Schuyler VelascoThe Christian Science Monitor

Walmart is getting an early start to Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year. The discount retail giant released its Black Friday ad Thursday, announcing that this year the store’s doors will open at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving night for discounts on home items, clothing, and toys.  Electronics will go on sale two hours later, at midnight.

Among the items you can grab at 10 p.m. after your feast: a $67 ping pong table, a slew of DVDs for $1.96 apiece, and a 4-quart Crock-Pot for under $10 (regular price is closer to $25).

Perhaps as surprising as the deals is the timing of the ad for Walmart Black Friday 2011. Last year, Walmart didn’t announce its Black Friday deals until Nov. 22, meaning this year’s revelations are coming a full 12 days earlier than before. But the early Walmart announcement is just the latest in a trend of stores getting an earlier and earlier start to the Black Friday rush: For the first time, Gap, Old Navy, and Banana Republic are opening their stores at midnight on Black Friday, joining Macy's, Kohl's, and Target, which have done it before.

“Thanksgiving night openings are much more common now,” says Dan de Grandpre, CEO of dealnews.com, a website that tracks sales at large retailers across the country. “Deals are going to be much better at that time. But you have to get up earlier and earlier, or those stores will be picked over.”

The hubbub over the early Walmart announcement comes in the wake of projections for a fairly average holiday shopping season. Erik Johnson, an economist with IHS Global Insight, is predicting a 4.2 percent growth in overall holiday sales over last year. “To put this in perspective, 2010 holiday sales were up 5.2 percent and 2009 sales were down 0.4 percent,” Mr. Johnson says in e-mail.

Some are predicting more shoppers, however. According to Business News Daily, a recent consumer survey from the digital technology advertising company Social Vibe is projecting a 52 percent increase in the number of Black Friday shoppers from last year.  That means longer lines and much bigger crowds, which may be part of the impetus for retailers to extend their hours.

But Mr. de Grandpre insists that bigger crowds don’t necessarily mean more buying. “There will be a lot of window shopping,” he said “Participation in Black Friday will go up, but there will be more of a shift from in-store shopping into online shopping.  The growth of online shopping has been many times higher than in-store shopping.

Johnson agrees. “E-commerce as a percentage of overall retail sales hit an all-time high in the second quarter of 2011, at 4.6 percent,” he says.

Online retailers, too, are getting in on the Black Friday earlier than ever: Amazon.com has already launched a “Countdown to Black Friday” section of its site, with early discounts on a wide array of products including cameras, TVs, DVDs, and toys.

According to de Grandpre, however, the pre-sales usually can’t hold a candle to the real thing.  “Stores use terms like Black Friday and Cyber Monday to draw in shoppers, but that doesn’t always mean good deals,” he says. “I’d be skeptical of discounts that sound modest, or that have a range.”

He uses terms like “up to 30 percent off” as an example. 

“Just because a store has a big sale doesn’t mean the specific items are all that cheap. Macy’s has a 20 percent off sale basically every Friday. It’s better to look at specific items for big discounts.” 

Still, if you wanted to get a jump on the holiday rush this Veteran’s Day weekend, for instance, there are certain benefits. “It’s a contrast of convenience and savings” versus the Black Friday rush, de Grandpre says. “Black Friday is not a fun day to shop. The sales reps are always frazzled, and people are aggressive. Of course, online sales sort of take away those convenience concerns, and a lot of online sales these days are identical to what’s in the store.”

And there are some decent deals to be found over the coming weekend.  Home improvement retailer Lowe’s is offering deep discounts on major home appliances ($1,100 off a Wirlpool washer/dryer pair, for example), and competitor Home Depot is releasing its actual Black Friday prices this week.

You can also find bargains on clothing, at retailers like Kohl’s and JC Penney, which is offering a wide variety of discounts this weekend, most notably 50-60 percent discounts on diamond jewelry.

“Given the hassle, it's not really worth getting up at 3 a.m. on Black Friday for a sweater,” de Grandpre says. “You want to go for a big ticket item, like a TV or a laptop.”