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Paul Abell, AP IMAGES FOR MACY'S
DISTRIBUTED FOR MACY'S - (L-R) Jessica Gaddy reacts with Wanda Kemp as they shop during the Macy's Lenox Black Friday store opening on Thursday, November 28, 2013 in Atlanta. (Paul Abell/AP Images for Macy's)

At 4 a.m., the sky is dark and the weather freezing, but Rachel Crumbley of Pine Mountain, Georgia, and her mother-in-law and sister-in-law are cheerfully sipping coffee and hot chocolate and taking selfies as they wait in line outside of a local store.

It’s the day after Thanksgiving, and for Crumbley and her family members, the first hour of an eight-hour (or more) shopping day. And she has strategically mapped out every minute of shopping so the three of them can make the most of the advertised sales.

“It’s always been kind of crazy,” Crumbley said, describing details of her 10-year Black Friday shopping tradition. But enduring the traffic, crowded stores and long lines has always been worth it for the sales and, most importantly, for the memory-making opportunities.

Last year over 300 million people in the United States shopped in-stores and/or online on Black Friday, spending $57.4 billion, according to statistics posted by Racked, a national shopping blog that drew on statistics from the National Retail Federation and quantcast.com. And this year, with a recovering economy and lower gas prices theoretically giving families more disposable income, the turnout is supposed to be even bigger. But is Black Friday still the best day for getting holiday shopping deals?

“Is Black Friday still relevant? It is still relevant, but it’s just that the game has changed. We find ourselves now in what I would call a holiday shopping season, rather than just a day,” said Jane Thomas, a professor of marketing at Winthrop University in South Carolina. “And if you think the deals are good right now, they’re only going to get better through the season. The teaser stuff that’s out there right now, it is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Strategize how you shop

After Thanksgiving dinner has been enjoyed and the leftovers put away, Crumbley grabs the newspaper and a notebook. She sits down with her mother-in-law and sister-in-law and they start going through the overwhelming number of store advertisements in the inches-thick Thanksgiving-edition of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. They make detailed notes.

“Where should we start and what should we forego?” they asked themselves.

“We research, prioritize and make a plan,” Crumbley said.

Crumbley is what Thomas calls a “mission shopper.”

“This is the person who says I’m going to go into the store on a mission to buy one thing and then I’m going to leave,” she said.

They plan carefully ahead and once in the store, they don’t browse through the aisles or succumb to enticing store displays: “I will abandon a place if I don’t see what I need,” said Crumbley.

Time is precious on Black Friday and cannot be wasted perusing when there are other stores to hit: “If I see something else I might want, I come back and get that later,” she explained.

Mission shopping saves the consumer from impulse buying and overspending. Good for the consumer, but bad for the retailer. Retailers use the strategy of luring customers in with huge discounts — like those $100 TVs or bins of $1 DVDs — and once in the store, customers buy lots of other things that are not on sale, explained Thomas. It’s how stores can take losses on a few items, but still make money.

It also might be efficient for families to work in teams. One member of the family goes to electronics, another goes to the toys section and a third stands in the crisscrossing checkout line. Or family members split up between stores and communicate about the deals they have or have not found via voice or text, said Katherine Shaw, a professor of retail merchandising at Eastern Illinois University.

“Retailers will continue to utilize all vehicles they can to announce their sales and promotions, including email, newspapers, televisions and even mobile devices. Those looking to save money should follow retailers on social and sign up for emails, and keep their eyes open — deals won’t be hard to miss, though,” said Kathy Grannis of the National Retail Federation via email.

Just the beginning

Crumbley is the director of marketing and public relations for the popular tourist and locals destination Calloway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Georgia. Special Christmas events held at the Gardens make her job especially busy during the holidays and time for personal shopping is limited.

“I appreciate (Black Friday) so I can get as much shopping done as I can,” she said.

But, for those who would rather avoid the crowds and chaos, and have the time to shop later — or earlier —they will still win big on sale items.

"For all the hype, Black Friday isn’t the day to find the best deals, according to new data from Adobe Systems Inc., which has collected information on one trillion visits to 4,500 retailing websites since 2008," reported the Wall Street Journal. "Instead, retailers’ biggest price cuts last year came on the Monday before Thanksgiving, and shoppers who bought items on Thanksgiving Day snapped up the season’s lowest prices."

According to data collected by lifehacker.com, there are prime times during the year to buy certain products. In January it's clothes; May is when refrigerators are cheap; find holiday travel deals in September; and electronics are on sale in November.

But for shoppers like Crumbley, Black Friday is their biggest shopping day of the year more because of convenience than because of deals.

“A lot of people travel for Thanksgiving. And when you travel, you shop," said Thomas. "You have the time to shop because you are removed from all your other obligations."

This year, the holiday deals started early.

“On Nov. 1, Wal-Mart, BestBuy and Amazon all said that their Black Friday deals have already started,” said Thomas. “This year, we have one less weekend than we did last year for shopping. That means that retailers are going to do everything they can to get us in there.”

And retailers need people in the stores and buying since “the holiday season accounts for as much as 30 percent of some companies’ annual sales,” wrote Grannis.

“Retailers now are extending the deals, they’re offering them throughout the weekend. So you don’t have to just come for the door-busters sales, but you will have a door-buster throughout the weekend,” said Shaw. “And retailers are starting to ration how they put the merchandise out. Rather than putting everything out right at the beginning, they may keep some in the back (store room), and then bring some out throughout the day or during the weekend.”

Online deals on the Monday after Thanksgiving, also known as Cyber Monday, will be just as good and maybe better than in the stores. And “if hot items sell out (on store floors), they may still be available online," said Grannis.

Target and Amazon are offering free shipping on all orders leading up to Christmas to encourage online shopping.

And Thomas expects that deals will get sweeter as Christmas creeps closer.

“If you can hold off and take the risk (for sales to get better closer to Christmas Eve), then take the risk," Thomas said. "Don’t hold off on the one thing your kid wants (in case it goes out of stock), but if you can wait, do it."

The shopping experience

Isolated reports of stampedes, assaults and arrests among Black Friday shoppers have become commonplace. When violence and chaos contributes to the growing popularity of online shopping, it would not be unreasonable to question if the biggest shopping day of the year may lose its appeal in the near future.

But retail experts and die-hard traditionalist like the Crumbley say that Black Friday isn't going away.

In eight tightly executed hours, Crumbley’s group almost finishes buying all the gifts they need for Christmas and makes it home unscathed in time to join her husband and father-in-law for a lunch of Brunswick stew.

The opportunity to shop during a busy work season and find incredible deals are two big draws to Black Friday for Crumbley and her crew. But what really keeps them coming back every year is the experience: "It is just great memory-making opportunities," she said.

It’s about standing in line in the freezing cold at 4 o’clock in the morning waiting for a door-buster and “just looking at each other and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, can you believe we’re out here?’” said Crumbley.

It’s also about the feeling of community as you talk “to other people in line and (ask) about where they’ve been and what deals they’ve gotten," she said.

Crumbley’s young teenage boys have even started to join in the shopping festivities. Though, they usually end up asleep by 5 a.m. amid the newspaper clippings and shopping bags that pack the car, she said with a laugh.

“You will always have families and individuals going out on Friday and shopping and here’s why: it’s cultural,” said Thomas. “It is part of the family’s tradition … and if my tradition has always been that I go out shopping on Black Friday, I’m going to still do it because of the experience.

"There are a lot of things we can do online, but there is nothing like the experience of going to your mall and seeing Santa Claus. Black Friday and Black Friday shopping is not going away.”

dsutton@deseretnews.com | Twitter: @debylene

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