Dirty secrets of Black Friday 'doorbusters'

Here are a few things bargain-hungry consumers need to know before they hit stores before dawn the day after Thanksgiving.

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By Parija B. Kavilanz, CNNMoney.com senior writer

On Black Friday, what are you looking to get at a bargain?
  • Electronics
  • Clothing
  • Toys
  • Appliances
  • Jewelry
9 extravagant holiday gifts
Each year, Neiman Marcus unveils a handful of over-the-top fantasy holiday gifts. Take a quick spin through the luxury retailer's 2009 Christmas Book and you just might forget about scaling back this year.
11 big Black Friday deals
An early peek at holiday ad circulars shows that post-Thanksgiving shoppers can score crazy deals -- like an LCD HDTV for half price, or a Nikon camera marked down 40%.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Here's a Black Friday reality check: Of the hordes of pre-dawn shoppers who line up for hours outside stores on the day after Thanksgiving, most will not bag the best bargains that appear in merchants' circulars.

Look at the fine print that appears next to an advertised "doorbuster deal" at the bottom of the page in this year's circulars.

It will either say "While supplies last," "Minimum 2 per store," "No rainchecks" or "All items are available in limited quantities."

A quick scan through a few of this year's Black Friday circulars show quantities as low as a "minimum of 5 per store" on some models of large plasma and HDTVs and popular brands of home appliances such as a washer-dryer pair.

Should Black Friday deal hunters feel cheated? Yes they should, say some retail experts.

"It's a sleazy practice," said Craig Johnson, retailing expert and president of retail consulting group Customer Growth Partners.

"I am old school," said Johnson. "If a retailer is advertising a juicy deal and they are not prepared to have in sufficient quantity, don't advertise it. Or give consumers a raincheck."

Johnson said it's not enough for retailers to mention that they'll have such limited quantities of a product on one of the most-hyped shopping days of the year.

"Retailers aren't winning any customers. They are just pissing off people," he said. "It's poor retailing practice."

Unfortunately for consumers, more examples abound.

CNNMoney.com spoke to industry experts to uncover a few dirty secrets of Black Friday deals.

Limited quantities. Advertising a Black Friday deal as "limited quantities" is bogus, said Johnson.

"The only time it makes sense to have only two or three [items] in stock is if the deal is on a $2 million gift product that appears in the Neiman Marcus holiday catalog," he said.

Edgar Dworsky, a consumer advocate and editor of Consumer World, agreed with Johnson.

"C'mon guys. Give me a break," said Dworsky. "How can you be the size of a retailer like Sears and only get a minimum of five per store, yet devote big space in your circular to advertise that deal?

Sears (SHLD, Fortune 500) has not officially revealed its Black Friday sales. However, the company confirmed to CNNMoney.com that two of its post-Thanksgiving deals include a Samsung 40-inch 1080p LCD HDTV for $599.99, "Only while quantities last, minimum three per store, no rainchecks."

The other is a Kenmore 3.5-cubic-foot high-efficiency washer and 5.8-cubic foot dryer pair for $579.98, "Limit four per store, no rainchecks."

"Sure, you probably have more, but how do you put out a circular to millions of households and only have three?," Dworsky asked.

When asked for a comment, Sears spokesman Tom Aiello said he was "not comfortable" addressing the issue of limited quantities for some Black Friday deals.

Such short supply on deals are not only annoying but can also be dangerous to Black Friday shoppers.

"We saw the stampede at a Wal-Mart (WMT, Fortune 500) store in New York last year on Black Friday that led to an employee's death," said Burt Flickinger, managing director of consulting firm Strategic Resource Group. "The stampede happened because so many of the deals were advertised as limited supply."

One retailer, while not explaining why its advertised deals are in such limited supplies, said it is taking measures to better handle the Black Friday rush.

"From going down the line and handing out doorbuster tickets that guarantee a purchase in advance of the store opening, to printing the minimum quantities in the circular, we go to great lengths to ensure that the Black Friday consumer knows exactly how many items will be at the store and whether or not they will be able to purchase one prior to entering the store," Best Buy (BBY, Fortune 500) wrote in an e-mail.

What do you mean this HDTV is a "derivative?" Some of the holiday electronics with those low sale prices are derivatives, models that have a few less features than a standard model in that product line, said Dworsky.

The difference can be subtle. "The image contrast ratio might be 20,000 in a derivative model versus 30,000 in a standard model," he said. "Most consumers probably won't even notice the difference."

A report earlier this month in Consumer Reports called attention to HDTV models from Samsung and Sony advertised in Black Friday deals that appear to be "derivatives." The report said these one-off TVs "with unfamiliar model numbers" are usually cheaper than the standard model in their class.

Dworsky cautions that retailers usually don't advertise these models as derivatives. "There's no way the average consumer will know that the TV model they are buying is not the standard one unless they are savvy enough to compare their model numbers," he said.

Which Black Friday deals are online? "Many retailers will say that their Black Friday deals are available online," said Dworsky. "But they're not nice enough to tell you which ones."

"How about telling me which exact ones so I can shop online from home and I'm not in my pajamas at 5 a.m. in front of your store," he said.

Online deals that never get shipped. Case in point: Sears. Last year, one of Sears' hottest Black Friday doorbuster deal was on a Kenmore washer-dryer pair for $600.

Even though the retailer advertised that deal to be in "limited quantities," the company decided to honor every customer order made on that deal last Black Friday.

Big mistake. The manufacturer could not ramp up production fast enough. Some customers waited months before their order was shipped. Others were sold a substitute model, that was "comparable or even better" for the same deal price, said Sears' Aiello.

Lesson learned. "We will not be doing that again this year," he said.

Be careful if you're shopping online on Black Friday, said Dworsky.

"Since retailers don't have a live inventory online you run the risk of getting an e-mail weeks later that your order had been delayed or worse, cancelled, because the product is out of stock," he said.

About those rainchecks. Finally, if a retailer does offer you a raincheck on a deal, it could still turn out to be an empty promise, Flickinger warned.

"A raincheck doesn't guarantee that you will eventually get that elusive Black Friday deal," he said. "Consumers can go weeks waiting and hoping, and the retailer may never get more of the product shipped to its stores." To top of page

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