COVID-19 is upending the 2020 holidays in myriad ways, but one seasonal tradition remains constant: We'll be doing a lot of shopping.
Despite the economic upheaval wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, consumers surveyed by the National Retail Federation and Prosper Insights & Analytics plan to spend only slightly less on holiday gifts than they did last year: $650 on average, compared to $659 in 2019. Consumers are cautious but looking to the holidays for “retail therapy,” according to a similar study by the NPD Group, a market research firm.
What's changing is how we do our holiday buying, with shoppers looking to avoid crowded stores and instead search out deals digitally. More than half of consumers plan to buy most of their gifts online this year, NPD found.
They'll have plenty to choose from, with major retailers largely pivoting from in-store doorbusters on Black Friday to weeks-long holiday sales. More than 3 in 5 retailers are offering more discounts than they have in holiday seasons past, says Sara Skirboll, shopping and trends expert at RetailMeNot, citing research by the savings site.
"Shoppers will have even more opportunities to save money this year given it will be an elongated holiday season,” Skirboll says. But that can make for an awful lot of searching and scrolling when looking for the right present at the right price. Here are some tips from shopping experts on where to find top deals on popular gifts.
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Big box battle: Target vs. Walmart
The big beasts among traditional superstores have been holding holiday sales all month, and they're generally comparable in terms of seasonal savings. “It is a very close contest between Walmart and Target when it comes to Black Friday deals,” says Casey Runyan, managing editor at discount guide Brad's Deals.
Smart-shopping expert Trae Bodge recommends looking to the big boxes for a range of home electronics. “The best deals at the moment are on flat-screen TVs, laptops, smartphone accessories, i.e. earbuds and headphones, and gadgets for the home like robotic vacuums and Instant Pot-like cooking gadgets,” she says.
Runyan says the two chains are “highly competitive” on Black Friday electronics deals. She gives Walmart the edge for computers, while Target “emphasizes ‘prestige’ tech, like Beats headphones, a little more."
Walmart tends to drop prices faster and farther for iPads or Apple Watches, “leaving competitors rushing to match,” says Nathan Burrow, deals editor for product-rating site Wirecutter. “The pricing eventually equalizes, but it's not uncommon to be able to grab Apple stuff at the best prices sooner at Walmart if you're worried about stock shortages.”
Experts rate the stores about even on home gadgets like Roombas, air fryers and pressure cookers but give Target higher marks for traditional housewares. Target historically has great Black Friday deals on bedding and bath linen, Burrow says, and it's “your best bet for selection and brands” if you're shopping for cookware, according to Runyan.
Other things to weigh between the big boxes:
- Both offer “excellent deals on iPhones and Android phones during Black Friday and Cyber Monday,” often with a store gift card thrown in, Burrow says, so one deciding factor could be “which retailer you'd rather get a gift card from.”
- Target's RedCard, available as a credit or debit card, gives holders an extra 5 percent off on all purchases, a potential tiebreaker if the two stores are offering similar deals on an item.
- Walmart has more than twice as many physical stores, so it may be more convenient for those who prefer to shop on-site or use curbside pickup for digital orders.
- Target offers price protection on Black Friday deals. You can qualify for a partial refund if you find the same item for less in a local print ad from a competing store within 14 days of purchase, or if Target lowers its own price before Christmas. Walmart's price match does not cover Black Friday or Cyber Monday deals and you have to claim it at the time of purchase.
What other retailers are offering for Black Friday
Several other major retailers, including Best Buy, Kohl's, Home Depot, Lowes and Amazon, are already offering “Black Friday/Cyber Monday-worthy deals,” Bodge says.
Best Buy kicked off holiday sales on Nov. 5, and Burrow says the electronics chain's 24-hour “Deal of the Day” discounts “come closer to approximating the doorbuster feel” than other retailers’ pre-Black Friday sales.
Skirboll lists Macy's among her top destinations for virtual Black Friday. The venerable department store launched its online sale Nov. 16 with “lots of deals on home, fashion, toys, electronics and kitchen appliances,” including big discounts on Instant Pot air fryers and Lazer jeans.
"Cyber Week will bring an extended time frame of deals, so start shopping as early as you can to avoid shipping and inventory delays,” Skirboll adds.
To keep up with the “dizzying number of deals,” Bodge recommends that “people sign up for the emails from their favorite retailers so they can stay in the loop,” and use third-party resources like the crowdsourced Black Friday page at slickdeals.net, which constantly updates its listings based on input from users.
"This page has up-to-the-minute intel on the top-voted deals from their community of over 12 million deal-seekers,” Bodge says. “I will be using this resource myself!"
Black Friday deals at warehouse clubs
Members-only warehouse clubs like Costco, Sam's Club and BJ's Wholesale “tend to be less focused than other retailers on doorbuster-type deals,” says Casey Runyan of Brad's Deals, but they “can still be very competitively priced.” And “unlike many other retailers, they rarely have inventory issues on their Black Friday deals.”
Annual fees for a basic membership at the clubs range from $45 to $60. Joining “can be a no-brainer” if your Black Friday shopping list includes big-ticket items, says Wirecutter's Nathan Burrow. “If you're saving $60 or more versus the competition, that's the cost of a membership, so you might as well join, especially if you have a location local to you.”
"Largely, Costco and Sam's Club carry similar (but not identical) inventory and offer similar benefits, so weigh those factors along with store location when considering joining,” he says.
Runyan singles out Costco as having “some big advantages over other retailers on Black Friday.” The largest warehouse club extends manufacturer's warranties on some products, including TVs and appliances, which can make for better value if you find the same price at another store. It also has a reputation for making returns easy.
"One challenge with Costco is their Black Friday ad,” Runyan says. “Most of their Black Friday ad lists the discount amount rather than the final price of the product. That makes it difficult to compare their prices against other retailers."
Burrow notes the same issue, advising consumers to “take the ‘$ off’ language with a grain of salt” because retailers often base it for promotional purposes on the manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP) rather than what the item actually typically sells for in stores.