As the hardiest of shoppers prepare for the annual Black Friday consumption frenzy, many are convinced it's their one shot at a great deal.
But "that's not even close to the truth," said Matthew Ong, senior retail analyst at online personal finance company NerdWallet Inc.
Bargain hunters can — and, in some cases, should — avoid the Black Friday weekend crush, several experts said.
Many characterize the shopping bonanza as an expertly marketed ploy to capitalize on shoppers' fear of missing out. By dangling a small batch of irresistible savings, stores land hordes of hopeful shoppers all scheming to score the retail version of Willy Wonka's golden ticket.
Yet only a tiny percentage of customers end up with the most desirable deals. The rest, unwilling to leave empty-handed, walk away with lesser bargains arranged appealingly nearby.
The weekend is crowded with misleading promotions, including deceptive discounts off misstated "original" prices and deals that could have been had a year earlier, according to NerdWallet. More than 90% of Black Friday ads this year feature items being sold at exactly the same price as they were last Black Friday, the financial advice website said.
And some door-buster prices are available throughout the year, including a $79.99 Tommy Hilfiger jacket at Macy's that NerdWallet said was also offered during the retailer's Veterans Day sale. At Target, researchers discovered a KitchenAid mixer selling for less than its advertised Black Friday sale price.
"Consumers make poor decisions when they're under duress, and this is most obvious on Black Friday," Ong said.
There will be plenty of competing shoppers this year to provide that stressful situation.
From Thursday through Sunday, the National Retail Federation anticipates that as many as 140 million shoppers will hit stores or retail websites. Although that's less than the 147 million who planned to do so last year, it's still more people than are active daily on Twitter, reside in Mexico or attended all the professional football, basketball and baseball games played in the U.S. last year.
In addition, more companies than ever are opening their doors on Thanksgiving, or as Westfield Topanga mall is billing it, Grey Thursday. So on top of the shoving, sleep deprivation and occasional stampedes the shopping event tends to breed, there will be an extra layer of hostility born of the decision to stand in line instead of tuck into turkey.
Black Friday itself remains the busiest and most productive day of the year for retailers. Consulting firm Accenture found that the appeal of the day is at a five-year high, with more than half of survey respondents saying they'll participate.
Retailers have been in a promotional mood for months as they try to attract wary shoppers. They're trying to make up for sales that have been weak through much of the year, damaged by volatile weather, shaky consumer confidence, the government debt stalemate and a payroll tax increase.
Forecasts for the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas period — which can sometimes account for 40% of a retailer's annual sales — are dour. Morgan Stanley predicted the worst holiday sales since 2008.
Worried retailers may continue discounting well past Black Friday in an attempt to suck in last-minute stragglers, analysts said.
Sharon L. McCollam, Best Buy Co.'s chief financial officer, told analysts in a Tuesday conference call that keeping up with rivals on bargains and discounts is "table stakes" in the holiday game.
"We are committed to being competitive on price," McCollam said. "So if our competition is, in fact, more promotional in the fourth quarter, we will be too."
DealScience, an online bargain aggregator based in Los Angeles, found that Wednesdays are the week's best day to save money, with a third of all coupons published on that day.
And hold on to those receipts: This year, more than 20% of big-box retailers are offering a price match guarantee, according to DealScience. If fact, most retailers will issue a rebate for the price difference if they put an item on sale after you bought it at a higher price.
Overall, Dec. 4 will be the best day to shop for the holidays, with the least amount of traffic between Thanksgiving and Christmas, according to ShopperTrak. Stores on Saturdays and Sundays, in comparison, are expected to be overwhelmed with people scrambling to check off their gift lists in four weekends instead of the five they had last year.