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Black Friday: When Discounts aren’t a Good Deal


Black-Friday-Phone-DealsI hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving. If you’re anything like me, one of the things you’re thankful for is that you don’t work for one of the bah-humbuggy companies that decided Black Friday needed to start on Thursday night. Dick move guys. Seriously.

I will readily admit that I enjoy shopping, and I love me some bargains. Yet I’ve never really gotten into the whole Black Friday thing. There are some very concrete reasons for this. For one, I’m not a morning person and, up until the last decade or so, asking me to get out of bed before noon on a holiday was asking a lot. Getting me out of bed before sunrise would have taken much more than the promise of discounted merchandise. Like my bed catching on fire.

Though I’m not quite the sleeper-iner anymore, I still can’t quite get excited about the prospect of getting up before the crack of dawn and standing in line in the cold in hopes of scoring a great price on a flat screen. Also, maybe I’m alone on this, but the concept of slashed prices one day a year doesn’t quite quicken the pulse the way it might have before discount shopping became its own industry through the ubiquity of outlet malls, big box warehouse stores and online shopping. If you can’t find a good deal on a TV, regardless of the time of year, I’d say you just aren’t trying hard enough. And with Amazon prime giving me free next day shipping, I can’t even be bothered to wait in a register line at a store for non-clothing related items, let alone wait in line to get into the store.

Much like my equation for determining the true price of an item of clothing (price divided by number of times worn equals actual price), I think it is important to look at bargain shopping in a more nuanced way that just ‘wow, this sweater is 40% off’… namely, what is that discount costing you in time and aggravation? When is a bargain actually a deal?

The first step to deciding the actual cost of a discount is to determine how much your time is worth. That is, of course, a very personal and subjective thing; I’m not just talking about how much you make per hour, though that is definitely a part of the equation. The trick isn’t just to look at how much you make per hour (as determined by your employer) but also how much your free time is worth to you. I work anywhere between 45 to 60 hours per week. My free time is precious to me, so I’d rate it actually more valuable than my hourly work rate. Of course, if you have a lot of free time, you might determine your hourly ‘what is my time worth’ rate is a little lower. Again, it is all highly subjective.

When determining how much your time is worth in regard to Black Friday bargain hunting, you also need to factor in how much pleasure you receive by getting a bargain (which would lower your hourly rate) vs. how annoying you find waiting in lines (which would raise your hourly rate). Once you have a rough idea of your number,  you then need to look at how much time it took you to get that discount. That’s how you decide if, in the end, you really got a bargain.

Say you bought a TV that is normally $500, but you’re able to get it on Black Friday for half off. If your hourly ‘what is my time worth’ rate is about $10/hour, as long as it took you less than 25 hours to get the TV, you’re coming out ahead. Good for you. If, however, you think your time waiting in the cold in the wee hours of the morning is worth a little more than that, between having to wake up super early, spending hours waiting to get into the store, suffering the pushing and line cutting and the frustration of trying to get someone to help you, the time you spend in line trying to pay for the TV, added together with the aggrivation you feel from the whole process, that same half-off TV might be closer to 10% off – not such a bargain after all.

Certainly there are many people for whom sitting in a lounge chair in the cold for hours in order to score some serious bargains totally is worth their time and energy (I’m not saying their time is objectively less valuable – again, this is all a highly subjective, person question). Many of us are on a limited budget and Black Friday discounts may be the best way to get the things we want or might be only way we’d be able to afford to buy all of the Christmas gifts we would like to give our friends and family without going into debt. Totally legit. There are also people who enjoy the whole process – they enjoy the thrill of anticipation and feel a sense of comaraderie with their fellow hard-core bargainers. Also fine. But I think a lot of people get carried away with the idea of the great deal and end up wrapping up the Thanksgiving holiday feeling tired, aggravated, and holding more than a few items they don’t really want or need, all in the name of scoring a bargain. Many of those folks are better off sleeping in and spending a few bucks more from the comfort of their amazon account.

This dynamic exponentially increases when it comes to free stuff. In my experience, people completely lose their minds at the prospect of getting something for nothing.  But often people get so excited at the idea of getting something for free that they almost never think about how much time or energy they are putting into getting it and whether or not they actually want it. When I was a kid, my mother worked in the public relations department of the local newspaper. Part of her job was organizing give-aways, and occasionally, when I wasn’t in school, she’d throw me a couple of bucks to help wrangle the crowds at the events. I remember being shocked and a little appalled at how long people would wait in line (and how aggressive they would become) to get a pair of free movie tickets. Seriously, people would show up in the middle of a weekday, 4 or 5 hours before the give-away was to start, taking time off of work, to stand in line to get tickets that, at the time, would have cost them a total of 10 bucks. Even if every person in line made minimum wage, for most of them, working for those 4 or 5 hours and then buying their tickets would have put them way ahead of the game from a purely financial standpoint. Granted, I’m sure some of the people in the line were unemployed, didn’t happen to be working that day and/or had little-to-no money for things like movie tickets. But I’m fairly certain that was not the case for most of the people who showed up in hopes of scoring some freebies. Even worse, recently I’ve seen people who pull down over 80k a year literally shoving each other aside to be the first recipient of a goody bag containing little more than a bottle of water and a 2 year-old DVD of a movie they’ll never watch. That ain’t pretty.

Believe me, I’m not hating on discounted/free stuff. I love it. I can’t tell you how many discount websites like groupon, Gilt and Daily Candy I’ve joined. I’ve stood in my fair share of lines for discounts and free stuff over the years. I once waited in line for over four hours in Union Square to get a free pair of Manolo Blahniks which were being given away as part of a Sex and The City promotion, though considering the shoes I scored were worth over $500 and I was a poor student at the time, I think I did sort of well on that one. But would I do it again now?

Yes. Yes, I totally would. So though I won’t be joining the throngs of Black Friday shoppers, I get it. Sort of.

Do you consider bargain-hunting your sport of choice? If so, today is sort of your superbowl. Let me know how you did. Was it worth it?



*We first ran this article in 2011, however Megan’s views on Black Friday remain the same:)


2 Responses to “Black Friday: When Discounts aren’t a Good Deal”

  1. November 25, 2011 at 12:13 pm

    My favorite story for Black Friday 2011 is the one about the woman who pepper sprayed 20 people in order to gain a “competitive shopping advantage” in Walmart. USA! USA! USA!

    • November 25, 2011 at 12:26 pm

      Happy Holidays!

      Cops Body-Slam Protective Grandpa As Crazed Shoppers Trample Upon Grandson

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