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walmart-hoodies

‘Scary WalMart Security Guards In Black Hoodies Prevent Black Friday Deaths’ was a headline I read over the Thanksgiving break on The Business Insider, referring to the sad death of a temporary worker that died last year when early bird customers rushed the doors. Oh, and they forgot to mention the bullhorns. (Photo credit: NY Times slideshow).

But it never should have come to that.

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Why Black Friday is Stupid

As a self-proclaimed ‘hyper-influencer’ and in layman’s terms ‘the guy everyone asks for tech and shopping advice,’ there’s no way I would ever recommend forsaking time with family during the holidays, getting out of a warm bed at 5am, and elbowing other like-minded, bad-at-math, so-called bargain hunters for the lowest possible quality flat-screen TV available at retail.

Before I even get to my rules, I can tell you they violate good shopping logic on so many levels.

First there’s the 5am thing.

Hey, maybe you love your mom so much that it’s a ritual that you both get up at the crack of dawn and shop together. It’s a yearly tradition. Um, ok. I’d prefer a nice cup of coffee and breakfast at the kitchen table, but so be it.

Or maybe you hate your family so much, that you fake that you really want to camp out on a Best Buy sidewalk the night before just to get away from them. You’ve got other problems there.

There’s just not that many things worth getting up at 5am for – and I’m a morning person. Some things that come to mind are a really good road trip, catching the first run down a ski trail on a knee-deep powder day, or catching a flight to Cabo St. Lucas.

ski-sunrise

Second, there’s also not a lot of things worth waiting in line for.

For this I think it comes down to opportunity cost. If your favorite sports team hasn’t made the finals in 20 years or this is the only time your favorite band of all-time is playing an intimate set at the venue in your small town, then I can see the reasoning in camping out for tickets. You may never get the chance again.

But what about that doorbuster 32′ Emerson LCD TV for $248? Well, as of this post the full retail price on WalMart’s website has it at $318. A respectable 22% discount. But don’t you think they’ll put that on sale again? So what’s your margin now, 15%? 10%?

And the fact is, you’re cheaping out on the worst kind of item, a potentially long-term purchase. It’s an Emerson! No disrespect to the electronics maker, but they just aren’t in the conversation with Samsung, Sony, Toshiba, or Panasonic when it comes to quality TVs.

In fact, I was easily able to find a comment the day after Thanksgiving of someone getting one with a defect.

tv-defect-comment

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve really paid a lot more attention to the quality vs quantity matrix. Go ahead and cut corners on that winter scarf, wine opener, or an ironing board. Listen, don’t get me wrong. When I’m home, I always make a stop at WalMart to pick up toiletries and other small items. But a TV is something you’ll potentially use hours a day, every day, for years. Do you really want to go bottom of the barrel? (In a Consumer Reports test, the Emerson… well, evidently CR didn’t have the Emerson as one of the TWENTY-THREE different brands that they tested. Sorry).

Even worse, lets say you decide to go quality and get WalMart’s 32′ Sony Bravia model for $378.
You know how much it is normally?

Wait for it…

$398!

Wow, 5 percent off! And you know how much they charge to ship it to your house? 97 cents! I swear to god, click the link, they’ll ship it to your home – I’m guessing some time AFTER 5am – for a dollar!

sony-bravia-tv-walmart

OK, that was a good warm-up rant. On to the tips:

Tip 1: Just buy it online

Lets face it, I live in the most expensive city in the country, so I need to save whenever and wherever you can. To me, that means buying online. Seriously, with the speed that you can do a Google search on virtually any product — in my case from my iPhone while still in the store — there’s no reason not to check on a price. Usually one of two things will happen:

A) You show the retailer the price, and say, hey, you’re too expensive, I’m just going to get it online, at which point they might lower or match the price and you can walk away with it right away

B)They say they can’t possibly meet that price. My friend and I both happened to be buying new LCD TVs at the same time 2 years ago, and said to the store manager, look, we’ll buy TWO giant flatscreen TVs today if you get close to the price online. Maybe he thought we were bluffing and said he couldn’t do it, so we walked.

Purchases in the last year include a digital camera, netbook, running sneakers, several books, an external hard drive, razor blades, a camping tent, a humidifier filter, and a replacement dimmer switch.

In every case, I did various amounts of research online, saw the product in person if needed, and paid significantly less by purchasing online. It’s not for the impatient among us, you do have to wait for shipping. But I counteract that somewhat by being an Amazon Prime member (yes, there is a yearly fee, and no, I don’t get paid to promote them). What that gives me is automatic 2nd day air shipping, and overnight for only $3.99.

The only purchase that caused me trouble was the dimmer switch. It ended up being defective, so I went to a local lighting store to get a replacement and ask questions of the staff, knowing they’d help me if the one I bought from them shorted out as well.

Reasons for not buying online:

– Need it quickly
– Need a local level of service
– Cost of shipping is a factor
– Savings tradeoff is too low

Let’s look at the duality of the Apple Store. Say you want a new Macbook Pro. You can buy it in the store for $1699, or get it on Amazon for $1678.88, a piddly savings of 1%. I would buy it at the Apple Store 99 times out of a 100 because if (and when?) something happens to it and you need to bring it in for service, you’re in a better position to say ‘I bought it right here at this store.’

On the other hand, lets say you need to buy a backup hard drive with your purchase, and they recommend the LaCie 500GB model for $179.95. You can literally walk over to any one of their internet-enabled computers, go to Amazon, and even buy the same model for $144.95 before you even leave the store!

Tip 2: What’s up with Banana Republic?

OK, so I know fashion is a very personal thing, trends vary greatly in different parts of the country, and just because I work in the same building as the guys from GQ and Details, doesn’t mean I’m an expert. But like many men – probably a large majority of my listeners – I tend to wear a dress shirt to work every day.

Now there’s not much as guys we can do to screw that up — at it’s core, you’re probably looking at some shade of blue or white with maybe a pattern or stripe thrown in, with the other variant being the collar and the cuffs, whether it’s supposedly non-wrinkle or not, and recently I’m seeing a lot of slim cut or fitted options.

How many dress shirts does the average guy own? I actually counted and was surprised to find that I had almost 40. Granted some are more for going out vs. business, some I rarely wear at all and should probably be thrown out [Actually, I donate them], and a few are my really nice ‘go-to’ ones for events or weddings or other random things in New York that I need to look spiffy for.

I asked one of the younger guys at work, he guessed he had about 20, so I’m going to say that they average office guy in his 30s – the Wired demographic – has about 25 to 30 dress shirts.

My point is this… it’s an item that you’re buying and replenishing on a constant basis, and honestly, most of the time they’re all about the same. For larger one-time purchases like a watch or a suit or shoes or a jacket, I’m going to pay more for quality and style.

So I’m a pretty simple guy. I used to work on 34th St, which means I walked past Macy’s, the largest department store in the world, every single day. OK, so Google leads me to the Guinness Book of World Records to say that in June the Shinsegae Centumcity Department Store in South Korea surpassed Macys, with a whopping 3 million square feet compared to Macy’s 1 million. I don’t care. I’m going with Macys.

shinsegae-department-store

Anyway, some people said that [walking by that many stores every single day] would be dangerous for them, as they’d always go in and buy something every single day. I said it was the opposite — unlike some people that make a specific trip to a mall to go shopping and feel like they have to buy something, I was able to very quickly pop in, see if there was a great sale, and if not, just continue on my way.

I knew that most of their dress shirts were in the $30-$50 range, but there was always some kind of sale, and usually some extra bonus dollars and coupons and Macy’s credit card deals that allowed me to buy shirts under $30 bucks.

But, there was also a Banana Republic on 34th. Their shirts were in the $60 range, and were tougher to find on sale, but when they did, you got a nicer, more stylish, shirt in the $30-$40 range.

But not anymore. Over the past year or so, their prices seem to be going up and up. I swore that I could barely find a decent shirt on sale for under $60.

My guess was that parent company Gap, Inc was trying to set a distinct market between Old Navy, the Gap, and Banana Republic. It seems they’re willing to turn off a large majority of Banana Republic shoppers, forcing those looking for lower prices down the chain to their neighborhood Gap, while keeping fewer upscale shoppers at much higher prices.

Well to me, I think it is backfiring, and at minimum they picked the worst year in memory to try and pull it off.

So I went to the web and I think the stats prove I’m right.

Here are the current price points for their non-sale shirts, and how many they have available:

$59.50 (5)
$79.50 (33)
$127.00 (6)banana-republic-shirt-127

So of the current dress shirts available on your website, 88.6% of them are $80 or higher. Really?

Contrast that with Macys.com, where they have over 350 different dress shirts, categorized into the following groupings:

Under $69.99
Under $49.99
Under $34.99

So what happens when I go into the Banana Republic on Black Friday? We already know WalMart is practically giving away items to get people in the store.

What is Banana’s alluring offer?

Buy one cashmere scarf at $139, get one free.

Really?

That’s your Black Friday worst-recession-in-recent-memory deal?

You polled 1,000 people and asked what they really wanted for as a holiday gift or what they would buy themselves, and they said please get me TWO scarves worth $139. Is that not ridiculous? Even with the deal, it’s a $70 scarf! I bet I’ve lost more scarves in my lifetime than I’ve bought if that is somehow possible.

So I decided to check their earnings report, and sure enough, while Gap shares were up a fantastic 25%, sales at Banana were down 6%.

Tip 3: iPod case study

So my sister has a very old school 20GB iPod that is on its last legs, and she asked for advice. At first I raved about the iPod touch — it was cool, it was flashy, it had apps, and it had wifi. But then I did what I’ve had to really focus on doing when giving tech advice — listen to what the person really needs.

She didn’t need apps. She didn’t need wifi. She just wanted a way to manage her music collection, and rip some more CDs that she owned, and do it at a reasonable price. So since the lowest priced touch over 20GB was $300, that was out. The problem was, the latest version of the classic is now $250, and has more than 8 times the storage than what she has now, 160 GB.ipod-classic

My solution?

Go to Craigslist, but with caution. It might look like I am contradicting my thoughts on spending the money on a quality piece of electronics that will last you, but my thinking is this:

– $250 is a pretty high premium to pay for more storage than she needs. 

– Going the refurbished route only saves about 15%. You might as well go new. 

– But if you can get a good deal on a good product from an early adopter looking to upgrade to a touch and unload their classic, you’re in a good position to make a win-win deal. Generally I’m looking for at least a 50% discount off of new to make it worthwhile.

The result? She emailed me today with a person listing a 6 month old 120GB iPod classic, and had talked her down from $195 to $160. I’d say saving $100 is just about the area when you take the chance, although I’d rather see the price get to the $125 range to really get a good deal.

Tip 4: What not to worry about

Gas prices. This is one I get into with my parents all the time, as they sometimes go out of their way to go to a gas station that has lower prices. Lets say gas station A is charging $3.09 a gallon and station B is charging $2.79. That seems like a pretty significant 30 cent difference.

But then I spell out the math. How big is your gas tank? 16 gallons. How much gas do you need? It’s at ¼ tank, so I need 12 gallons. So how much more does it actually cost? $3.60.

So I argue that his time, his effort, the wear and tear on the car, and the chance of an accident for driving more out of the way is definitely NOT worth it for just a few dollars more.

If he was filling up an SUV and commuted 40 miles to work each day? Yes, then it really adds up. But for tooling around town, go for convenience.

Tip 5: What you should really spend your money on

There was an article early this year on CNN.com that found that people valued experiences much more than possessions. So if you’re debating whether to get your wife or girlfriend diamond earrings or a sunny weekend getaway, lean toward Aruba.

But I also thought this article in the NY Times was fascinating, When Money Buys Happiness. It asked people to:

“List the ten most expensive things (products, services or experiences) that you have ever paid for (including houses, cars, university degrees, marriage ceremonies, divorce settlements and taxes). Then, list the ten items that you have ever bought that gave you the most happiness. Count how many items appear on both lists.”

It’s worth a read to see all the different ways people responded, and how they valued possessions vs happiness.

I’ll end it with a quote from Craig, who said:

‘As I read through all of the lists I realized that everyone who is more frugal than me is cheap and everyone who spends more than me is ostentatious. I am so relieved to realize that I have perfectly calibrated values.’

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[Jim’s Note: I want to note that these are my editorial thoughts, and that I often shop at all the locations discussed. Well, except the mall in South Korea. Haven’t seen what their holidays sales are like yet.]

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