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Holiday Shopping: Prime Day Now or Black Friday Later?

The coronavirus delayed Amazon's big sale until October, kicking off an early gift buying season

one mobile device screen displays an Amazon prime day sale logo while a second mobile device displays Black Friday sale items

LightRocket / Getty Images; E+ / Getty Images

En español | The holiday shopping season seems to get longer every year, but it's never extended as far back as Amazon Prime Day. The e-commerce behemoth's biggest annual event has always taken place in July, well before most of us are thinking much about our loved ones’ wish lists.

As with so many other things, COVID-19 changed that consumer calculus. Amazon postponed Prime Day 2020 to Oct. 13 and 14, adding a new wrinkle to shopping strategies that in past years might have focused on the “doorbuster” deals of Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

"In essence, you have two big chances to get holiday deals this year,” says Matt Wehner, a shopping expert at seasonal retail guide “Prime Day gives you an early start. Black Friday and Cyber Monday are your second chance.”

How to plan for these big deal days falling so close together? Broadly speaking, the price drops aren't much different. According to coupon marketplace RetailMeNot, average discounts on electronics and clothing were around 20 percent and 25 percent, respectively, for both Prime Day and Black Friday last year.

More important might be what you're shopping for — plunging prices on certain products have long been associated with one or the other sales event — and how much confidence, or concern, you have about availability and shipping times, issues that have plagued e-commerce during the pandemic.

Many products that make popular gifts, like bicycles and laptops, remain in high demand and short supply, and consumer research points to shoppers starting their holiday buying early and doing much more of it online, potentially stretching stocking and delivery systems.

Even before Amazon set Prime Day dates, 30 percent of consumers were planning to start shopping early this year for fear of missing out on what they want if they wait for the post-Thanksgiving “Cyber Week” sales, according to a survey by consulting firm Accenture. They'll have plenty of opportunity, with several other major retailers kicking off their deal season early.

"Over 70 percent of people are projected to do their holiday shopping online this year, and that amount of volume creates logistical strains,” says Nathan Burrow, deals editor for the New York Times–owned product-rating site Wirecutter.

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Primed for Prime Day

Those concerns are one reason to be ready to buy when Prime Day rolls around, Burrow says. (Or maybe sooner: Amazon is already offering "early Prime Day deals" and double-digit cash back on select items and product categories.)

"There's so much uncertainty swirling right now that buying early is advisable if you have any concerns,” he says. “We may see very slightly better pricing in certain product categories during Cyber Week, but Prime Day pricing will be roughly equivalent, and you won't put yourself through the undue stress of wondering when and if something will be in stock and on sale during Black Friday, or whether it could be impacted by shipping delays. That peace of mind is worth a few bucks to me."

Prime Day will certainly be prime time if you're shopping for Amazon's own products, especially gadgets like Echo smart speakers, Eero routers and Kindle tablets and readers, experts say.

"Amazon uses Prime Day to incentivize consumers to join the Alexa-enabled ecosystem of devices, so discounts on Prime Day will be deep,” says Trae Bodge, who tracks deals daily on her shopping site TrueTrae. “It's hard to know whether they will be as deeply discounted later in the year.”

Given the new schedule, Amazon is also likely to play up “getting your home ready for the holidays, stocking up on essentials and getting holiday shopping done early,” Wehner says. “But we expect to see roughly the same products discounted that we have in the past. Think smart home products, tablets, smartwatches, robotic vacuums."

Don't sleep on cookware, either. Instant Pot pressure cookers, for example, saw discounts up to half off on Prime Day last year and were among the top-selling items. “Kitchen favorites like the Instant Pot will absolutely be on sale again at prices that rival the best we've seen,” Burrow predicts.

What not to do on Prime Day? Buy hastily. “Things like countdown clocks and flash sales drive a sense of urgency that can lead us to buy before asking ourselves how this item fits into our lives, or even whether the product in question is worth our time or money at all,” Burrow says.

The long Black Friday

For some products, holding off can pay off, Bodge says.

Outside of Amazon brands, “I'm expecting that certain electronics, like TVs, phones and laptops, will be more deeply discounted later in the year,” she says. “This could apply to appliances as well. New models are often launched a bit later in October and in November, and as a result, items from last season will be priced to move.”

Broader changes in the holiday shopping calendar could also benefit patient deal-seekers. With Amazon rivals like Walmart, Target and Best Buy countering Prime Day with concurrent sales — and hedging against the near certainty of limited foot traffic at their physical stores this season — Black Friday is essentially starting now. That gives shoppers looking for the best deals more bites at the apple — or Apple.

"If you find a great Prime Day deal on an Apple product, vacuum, air fryer or anything else, by all means, snap it up,” Wehner says. “But Black Friday can be considered your second chance to get deals on Apple products, phones, kitchen gadgets and TVs, because all retailers across the board will be offering deals on these things — and possibly for weeks, as some of them are teasing longer Black Friday sales this year."

Wehner says he does not expect major availability issues even over a longer holiday shopping season.

"A lot of the Prime Day merchandise is stuff that Amazon and sellers are eager to offload. So it likely won't deplete stock,” he says. “Amazon and other retailers also tend to limit the number of products sold at ‘doorbuster’ pricing anyway. So even if something ‘sells out’ during Prime Day or a competitor's sale, that doesn't mean there's nothing left for Black Friday."