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Store wars: Spying on Black Friday

The Baltimore Sun

All's fair in love and Black Friday.

The day after Thanksgiving may not actually be the biggest shopping date of the year. That typically occurs a couple of Saturdays before Christmas. But it's easily the year's most notorious and anticipated day in retailing.

The news media often describe the day in battle terms, and not just because on occasion someone actually slugs someone who had cut in line to grab the last must-have ticklish doll or video game. Thousands of people wake in the inky black of night for the thrill of jostling with other shoppers to fill their carts by daybreak.

A restaurant near me advertises a "7 a.m. Black Friday Breakfast." This presumably is for folks who will have already finished their conquest, since no serious Black Friday shopper would be caught dead enjoying a leisurely breakfast with "doorbuster" sales to be had.

Blogs have emerged as a new weapon on the "Black Friday" battlefield. Sites such as blackfriday.info, bfads.net and blackfriday.gottadeal.com have been posting PDF images for weeks of future sale circulars from major retailers.

Web outlets claiming to have gotten an early copy of Wal-Mart's ad, the Holy Grail of "Black Friday" circulars, have become as much a part of this season as cranberry sauce. Gottadeal.com even posted the Oct. 17 letter it received from Wal-Mart counsel, warning it not to reveal the chain's "Black Friday" information before its authorized release tomorrow.

Brad Olson, the 28-year-old founder of Gottadeal.com, said the pushback from retailers has gotten stiffer in recent years.

He received a half-dozen cease-and-desist letters from retailers this month, from chains such as Linens 'n Things, OfficeMax and Big Lots. He anticipates that next year some will send out warning letters even before their ads get leaked, the way Wal-Mart did a month ago.

Olson said he rarely gets the circulars directly from the companies. More often, various sources - ad designers, printers, newspaper distributors - leak them to him. He judges the ads' authenticity mostly based on whether they look like the real McCoy. He refrains from posting raw lists that people send him of sale offers they've "heard of."

"It's gotten bigger every year. People have more time to plan strategies," said Olson, who lives in suburban Milwaukee. "It used to be you'd see the paper on Thanksgiving and go out the next morning. Now, it has all the hype behind it."

Consumerworld.org, an organization begun by Edgar Dworsky, a former attorney for the consumer protection division of the Massachusetts attorney general's office, offers tips and the names of sites it thinks can help you shop smarter.

Among its suggestions:

Use Internet shopping robots to compare deals, such as Price Checker in Consumer World, or the ones at Shopping.com, PriceGrabber.com, Shopzilla.com or NexTag.com.

Research the product on sites such as Consumer Reports.com, Steves-Digicams.com (for cameras), Ecoustics.com (TV and hi-fi equipment) and PCMagazine.com (computers). User comments posted after product descriptions at Amazon.com are also instructive.

Some of the technology blogs can be useful, especially if you're nervously contemplating an expensive electronics purchase and want to know more about the product from outside sources.

Gizmodo the gadget guide had a blog post last week that said: "Circuit City Black Friday Ad Offers Best Deals So Far: The Best Buy Black Friday ad held a couple deals in terms of reasonably priced TVs and a $399 Sony laptop that's sure to sell out before you even get in the store, but Circuit City has its own set of goodies for you to camp out for," including a Compaq Presario laptop for $300.

Another popular tech blog, Engadget, proclaimed, "Wal-Mart's $100 Toshiba HD-A2 is going to be a little hard to beat this holiday season, but Best Buy is proving no slacker in the Black Friday price war. Turns out they've got a $200 eMachines desktop on offer, complete with 17-inch LCD. ... Nothing's blowing our mind like that HD-A2, but it looks like there's going to be plenty of cheap-as-free electronics for adventurous shoppers to fight over in a couple weeks."

As that blogger might add, "Dude, start your wallets."


Andrew Ratner, a former technology reporter, is Today editor of The Sun.

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