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Are Black Friday deals too good to be true?

Tags: Retail

Inside the Chase: So, they've already tucked into their turkey dinners, visited family and friends, and taken in the Macy's Day Parade on TV. But then the real work for Americans this U.S. Thanksgiving holiday begins - steeling themselves for the madness they call Black Friday - when shoppers hit the malls - or increasingly, go online - in droves to see what great deals are to be had. (Incidentally the moniker dates back to the time when U.S. retailers would hold post-Thanksgiving Day blockbuster sales to generate revenue and see their annual balance sheets go from 'red' to 'black.')

This year, U.S. retailers opened their doors earlier than ever to try to get a jumpstart on the holiday shopping season. And there are clear signs the Black Friday phenomenon is creeping into Canada big time. Homegrown retailers are jumping on the bandwagon, not only because it's a way of trying to curb Canadians' enthusiasm for heading over the border in search of bargains, but as part of a cultural shift, given the large number of big American retailers setting up shop here.

So in preparing for today's show, I had a chance to ask our two Headline guests if doing the Black Friday shopping thing is actually worth it. Gary Edwards, Chief Customer Officer with Toronto-based retail consultancy, Empathica, didn't even take the time to blink before saying: "No, given this competitive retail climate and the economy, there are good deals to be had all year round." However, if someone is "looking to buy a lot of stuff, then this is the time that, collectively, you might be able to save more money," he adds.

Indeed, the Wall Street Journal published analysis of the most-touted Black Friday deals. What did WSJ learn? Well, that many of those items advertised as 'doorcrashers' could actually have been purchased earlier in the year at a cheaper price. For example, a KitchenAid Artisan Series stand mixer was priced at US$319.99 this Black Friday. But a shopper could have bought that same mixer last March from the same retailer for US$296. Another example is a GE Adora dishwasher advertised for Black Friday at $598 - a savings of US$151 from the regular listed price. But as recently as last month, the same chain had the same dishwasher on sale for US$538.

So, why all the hype over Black Friday? Edwards says part of the reason is that, in a firmly entrenched tough economy, shoppers are always looking for what they think is a good deal. But a bigger reason perhaps he adds is plethora of Black Friday marketing that Americans are exposed. He says that even if retailers wanted to, none could really stop the Black Friday madness.

"It's totally part of the culture now, and it would be dangerous for any retailer to pull back now," Edwards tells me, or risk losing sales and market share.

As for the phenomenon crossing the border north into Canada, our other Headline guest, Keith Howlett, retail analyst with Desjardins Securities, says that while Black Friday has arrived here, it's strictly more of a commercial phenomenon, not one that is tied into a major social, cultural event such as Thanksgiving. (Our equivalent would be Boxing Day, when Canadians have more days in a row off and can spending some of that time in retail therapy.) And certainly, he points out that Canadian retailers are concerned about the high loonie, larger duty-free exemptions - $1,800 if you stay in the U.S. for more than 48 hours - and the perception among Canadians that U.S. prices are lower, even when you factor in travel and any applicable duty. That is another reason why homegrown retailers are touting their own Black Friday sales and opening their stores earlier on Black Friday. (My colleague Kristine Owram, who arrives at work before 6:30 a.m. ET, saw hoards lined up in front of a sporting goods store on her way in on the Queen streetcar, and Toronto's iconic Eaton Centre was open at 6 am).

When it comes to this holiday season in the U.S., Howlett says experts are predicting an overall increase of about 3 to 4% for the November to December shopping seasons. The figures probably won't look as good in Canada, with the prospect of a bumpy economy ahead and a more cautious consumer.

As for me, I won't be lured by the siren of flyers telling me of Black Friday bargains. The one time I was in the states for Black Friday, at Walden Galleria near Buffalo, I was greeted by a scene the resembled something more akin to a bomb attack going off in the shoe department of Lord and Taylor. And what about Black Friday sales in Canada, you say? Heck, I am not even near the point of getting my gift shopping list together.

Inside The Chase offers a behind-the-scenes look into the fast-paced world of chasing and booking guests for live television. The new blog features the writing of veteran journalist and Headline chase producer Zena Olijnyk.   

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