Don’t Get Scammed on Black Friday: How to Identify Deals vs. Duds

people shopping in a store during black friday
Samantha Dunscombe/ The Penny Hoarder
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If you wake up at 3 a.m. to line up in front of Walmart or combat your turkey coma to spend an hour propped up in bed clicking around Target’s website, it’s for a good reason.

Even if your spouse looks at you strangely from the other side of the mattress, you know you’re getting the best deal possible on something you need and would buy anyway. (Because that’s the only reason you’re spending money on Black Friday, right?)

These deals aren’t going to repeat themselves, and they’re too good to miss… Or are they?

Not Every Black Friday Deal Is a Bargain

Turns out, maybe not.

While some Black Friday deals are unbeatable, some are just OK. You might already be able to get an item for the sale price, or cheaper, on Amazon.

Some vendors even have the items listed at the same discounted price in stores right now. But in the Black Friday ads, they list the MSRP (manufacturer’s suggested retail price) in bright red to inflate savings percentages. More like MSRPointless.

In fact, many “deals” are actually complete rip-offs: Did you know some companies create custom items just for Black Friday sales? And I don’t mean exclusive limited editions.

Some retailers flood their sales floors with “derivative products” that look like the real deal. Think TVs with screens with fewer pixels or computers with slower processors.

“Black Friday is about cheap stuff at cheap prices,”’s CEO, Daniel de Grandpre, told BankRate in 2015. Manufacturers can make these slightly less-awesome items more cheaply and sell them at a jaw-dropping discount. They get consumers in the door, but burden them with subpar stuff.

Even the good deals aren’t necessarily “one time only.” If you think you’re seeing the same Black Friday deals year after year, you probably are. Retailers rerun the same (or even better!) deals each year — which means waiting an extra year might save you a few extra bucks, due to inflation and a potentially lower sale price.

How to Spot the Best Black Friday Deals

So how do you know if it’s a deal or a dud?

Know the Likely Suspects

It turns out there are some noticeable trends regarding which deals are bogus. (Notice the same things popping up from year to year.)

Doorbuster TVs, tablets and laptops are more likely to be derivatives with fewer HDMI ports or lackluster specs, and tools for Dad are offered at a better discount in June.

Seasonal items, like winter clothing and decorations, or easy and popular gifts, like chocolate, flowers or vacation packages, also won’t be as steeply discounted. Vendors know you need those items right now and are willing to pay for them.

Beware of Repeat Deals

Need a new cookware set? I bet Rachel Ray’s 20-piece set is going to be available this year for $89. Just an educated guess.

Before you pull out your credit card, check last year’s ads, Amazon or current in-store prices for the item you’re eyeing — is that Black Friday deal really so special?

Creating pressure to purchase right now is a standard psychological trick in the sales industry. How many “limited-time offers” are still on infomercials three years later? Ever been subject to a landlord’s claim that the potential next tenant is coming with cash in hand, so you’d better sign now?

Keep informed and shop around. That knowledge could mean cash in your pocket.

Check the Model Number

Want to make sure that new laptop is really the one you want? Check the model number.

Manufacturers may create new derivative products for Black Friday, but they have to use a unique model number to differentiate the product. Those numbers can’t lie.

Check Reviews

If you’re like me, you exhaustively — or annoyingly — check reviews every time you purchase anything, even a lamp or a dress. I check reviews before I go out for ice cream.

You should probably not try to be like me.

But when it comes to Black Friday, reviews are your friend.

Before you blindly buy the laptop or TV at the biggest discount — you know, the one proudly displayed on the first page of the flyer — check its reviews online. Even a great sale price is too much to pay for a bad product.

Plus, if there are no reviews or the product doesn’t exist yet, that’s a good hint (though no guarantee) the item might be a derivative.

Avoid Rebates… or Make Sure You Actually Use Them

That bold-print sale price might have a fine-print catch: It might include a mail-in rebate. Or maybe the discount isn’t that great, but the purchase of a specific item comes with coupons or gift cards for future use.

Of course, we Penny Hoarders love rebates, cash-back sites, free gift cards and other easy ways to save a few bucks.

But vendors love them for a different reason: Research has shown that statistically, you’re unlikely to follow through with mailing in a rebate. They get the marketing benefit of a shocking sale price with none of the profit cut.

So make sure you’re taking retailers up on those well-advertised offers! If you know you’ll probably forget, skip these deals in favor of regular, discounted prices.

Be vigilant this season, and make sure your Black Friday deals are worth your while. Anything less is a waste of time and money.

Jamie Cattanach is a writer whose work has been featured at The Write Life, Word Riot, Nashville Review and elsewhere. Find @JamieCattanach on Twitter to wave hello.