Spoutin' Off: Find the best deals this season

By Michael Rau

December 4 2006

Black Friday has come and gone, and I - for one - am still baffled by what consumers will go through on the day after Thanksgiving to save a few bucks.

Local TV showed people camping out for 16 hours or more, in the midst of miserable weather, to be among the first into the stores, some of which opened as early as 5 a.m.

Oh, well - to each his own.

For those of you who didn't succumb to this madness, I want you to know that there will be ample opportunity to get great deals, particularly on consumer electronics, between now and your December gift-giving holiday of choice.

Most analysts say this will be a great time to buy two items, in particular: flat-screen TVs and notebook computers. The market is flooded with both, suppliers are offering deep discounts to move them out and retailers are using them as loss-leaders to draw you out of your houses and into their stores.

For example, the two big-box electronics retailers had 32-inch LCD TVs on sale (for the first six hours that the stores were open) for about $475. This is a great price, but I found the same item online for about $30 more (after factoring in additional costs), and I didn't have to camp outside for 16 hours in a storm to get it.

Similarly, both had notebook computers on sale for less than $400, with rebates and subscription deals involved to get prices down that far.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that these are not premium items. The LCD TV is an off-brand with decent specs but little history, in terms of performance and service.

LCDs, particularly the cheaper ones, are likely to leave you less than dazzled by their picture quality. They're fine in high-def or even in some better-filmed standard-def programming. But most daily programming, particularly that with lots of motion, tends to be jumpy and pixelized on most LCDs due to their slow picture-refresh rate.

As for the notebook computers offered in these sales, they're fine for e-mail and Web surfing. But try running some resource-greedy applications, and you're likely to end up grinding your teeth over the unit's performance.

The lesson to be learned here is that a good price doesn't necessarily equate to a good deal. Taking a little time to research the products you want to buy will save you from buyer's angst down the road.

What about the "hot sellers"? That depends on just how hot they actually are.

For example, you'll never find Apple products at a discount price. The reason is simple: They sell every unit that they can make at the price they ask, so what would motivate them to drop the price?

Sony and Nintendo have introduced their next-generation gaming systems. If you've followed the news about these introductions at all, you know that consumer madness gripped their launches, leading to assaults, robberies and even a killing over a PlayStation 3.

You won't see these discounted anytime soon. You might be lucky to even find one.

Another item that analysts predict will sell well this holiday season is MP3 players. Many companies make good-quality portable music players, but there are really two big participants in this race - one old and one new.

Apple's iPod is, of course, the dominant player in the market. The Nano and Shuffle lines were just upgraded, and the Shuffle, in particular, is already in short supply. No discounts for these.

The new player is, of course, the much-hyped Zune from Microsoft. Although I remain unimpressed by this product, some analysts think that these could be big sellers over the holidays. But even if sales for the Zune fail to meet expectations over the next couple of weeks, it's still probably too new to see deep discounts so soon.

Everything else is fair game for low prices between now and year's end. The only question is how low they'll go.

Even if the next couple of weeks see strong sales, supplies of consumer electronics are also strong, and more discounts are inevitable.

If you prefer to buy locally from a big-box retailer, at least go online to one of the sites that search multiple online retailers and research the product you want. Sites like PriceGrabber, BizRate, Froogle, PriceScan and NextTag can point you to some outrageously good deals online, as well as showing you just how good the price at the big-box store actually is.

They'll also have much more information, including consumer ratings, on your chosen product, as well as on comparable items.

Remember: Low prices can be very seductive, but a little foresight - as well as some careful shopping - will leave you feeling much more satisfied in the long term.

And the next time that Black Friday rears its ugly head, you, too, will wonder just what the heck all those shoppers-to-be were thinking.

Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, go to http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.

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