For years, I've followed the same strategy for Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year. Step 1: sleep in. Step 2: stay as far away from the mall as possible. This time-tested technique assures that I won't meet my demise at the hands of maniacal shoppers stampeding toward $49 Blu-ray players. And it doesn't deprive me of deals worth bragging about the entire holiday season is a great time to buy technology products, period.
So if you blew off Black Friday like I did, fret not. Normally discount-phobic Apple knocked $101 off the price of a $1,199 MacBook Pro last Friday, for example, but Amazon.com offers the same deal every day and collects sales tax from buyers in only five states. If you're willing to deal with a mail-in rebate, you can save even more $150 on the same Mac at MacConnection. You may have snoozed, but you didn't lose.
Herewith, a few tips for getting Black Fridaylike savings, minus the frenzy. I plan to use all of 'em before the year is out.
1. Skip the Store
On Thanksgiving afternoon, I happened to cruise by a Best Buy. Folks were already queuing up in front, apparently willing to spend a chilly New England night camping out in order to be first in line the next morning. I was half tempted to slow my roll, lower the window and holler: "Don't you people know about the Web?" Online merchants nearly always offer the most aggressive discounts, and buying something on the Internet at a steep discount requires no more effort than paying full price. (There's no such thing as standing in line outside Buy.com.)
One possible argument against online shopping that delivery costs too much or takes too much time has been largely neutralized by free-shipping offers and reasonable prices for overnight and two-day options. I belong to Amazon Prime, the wonderful, insidious program that costs $79 a year but provides free two-day shipping (and $3.99 overnight shipping) on the vast majority of Amazon.com's offerings. Naturally, I end up buying most of my gadgets there: it's like Costco with a far better selection and only slightly more delayed gratification and I don't have to show my receipt on the way out.
Ordering online can't replace the brick-and-mortar experience completely. For example, I recommend trying out a laptop in person before you plunk down your money. But there's no law that forbids checking out merchandise at a retail store, then buying it from whoever offers the best price.
2. Even if You Buy Locally, Start Online
Just as you can inspect a tech product at a nearby store and then purchase it online, retail shopping can begin with Web-based research. Milo is a pricing search engine, similar to research tools like PriceGrabber but the deals it finds are at shops in your neighborhood, not websites. SundaySaver has online versions of weekly newspaper circulars from big chains. And major merchants like Best Buy let you use their sites to find items, verify their retail availability and then pay online for local pickup. When you arrive at the store, you can breeze past the line at the front and head to customer service, where your purchase will await.
3. Rely on the Kindness of Bargain Fiends
You may not have the time, expertise or inclination to obsessively sniff out the deepest discounts, but you can benefit from the hard work of those who do. TechBargains, DealCatcher and Slickdeals all list limited-time deals in a bevy of categories markdowns, coupons, cheap or free shipping and more. Google can also help: if you're planning to buy a Dell PC, for instance, search for a phrase such as "Dell coupon" or "Dell discount." There's a reasonable chance you'll discover one or more pertinent price breaks that would have otherwise escaped your attention.
4. Look into Outlets
Most major purveyors of tech products on the Web even hoity-toity ones like the Apple Store have outlet sections, offering closeouts, refurbished goods and other low-cost options in far more plentiful supply than you'd find at a physical retailer. Check out both resellers, such as Amazon and Newegg, and manufacturers, such as HP, Nikon and Sony; sometimes they've slashed the same stuff that others are still selling at the original price. (If you can't find a link on a merchant's home page, Google for its name plus a keyword such as outlet or clearance.)
5. Consider Writing Your Loved Ones a Rain Check
Immediately after the official holiday season, retailers (both brick-and-mortar and online) discover that sales didn't live up to their wildest dreams. They then make one more push to move merchandise at Amazing! Low! Prices! If you're planning to give someone an item in a hot category with plenty of solid choices like an HDTV you might want to present the recipient with a note announcing the good news. Then do the actual buying early in January, when you can snag a better product for less money. (Besides, a gift-wrapped 50-in. plasma TV sitting by the tree isn't going to surprise anyone.)
Those who sell us technology products like to suggest there are such things as once-in-a-lifetime or at least once-in-a-season offers. The truth is way less stressful: there are always more deals to come, and the longer you wait, the more you'll save. Keep that in mind, and your holidays will be both happier and thriftier.
McCracken blogs about personal technology at Technologizer, which he founded in 2008 after nearly two decades as a tech journalist. His column for TIME.com, also called Technologizer, appears every Tuesday.