The two mega-holidays of retail, Black Friday and Cyber Monday, are entrenched in shopping lore, but the line between them is blurring as online shopping grows. Online sales on Black Friday and Thanksgiving (increasingly lumped in with Black Friday because of early store openings) grew significantly last year, even as Cyber Monday posted a record $3.1 billion in sales. Still, shoppers spent $10.4 billion in bricks-and-mortar stores on Black Friday in 2015 and $1.8 billion on Thanksgiving, according to ShopperTrak. And depending on buyers' shopping habits, there may still be compelling reasons to prioritize Thanksgiving and Black Friday over Cyber Monday, or vice versa. Not sure whether to venture out, or skip the crowds and stay at your computer? Read on.
Related: The Early Bird's Guide to Holiday Shopping
For shoppers who don't have a must-have item in mind and would rather browse a favorite retailer, Cyber Monday is probably a better bet. That's because across-the-board discounts are more common that day. For example, Target offered 15 percent off everything sitewide on Cyber Monday last year, save for a few exclusions. And clothing retailers commonly feature sitewide discounts as high as 50 percent off.
Yes, "doorbusters" are still a thing, but it's also worth noting that shoppers are increasingly skeptical that they're the bottom-dollar deals they used to be. About half of shoppers surveyed by Ibotta last year said they expected to find the best deals after Black Friday, not on it. Still, the stores always dangle some big carrots to get shoppers in the door. Some of last year's best doorbuster deals included almost $70 off Apple iPad Minis at Walmart, a $99 Chromebook laptop at Best Buy, half off a Kenmore Elite washer-and-dryer pair at Sears, and $200 off Dyson vacuums at Lowe's.
It's no secret that some of the biggest doorbusters are pricey electronics such as TVs, tablets, cameras, and audio systems -- and these hot items may fly off the shelves before Black Friday at retailers that open early. Thanksgiving was the best day to nab a deep discount on cameras, iPhones, speakers, TVs, and tablets last year, according to DealNews. Headphones were a better deal on Black Friday, while laptops and Android deals were better on Cyber Monday.
Shoppers who decide to focus on electronics deals should note some potential pitfalls. One of retailers' favorite tactics is rolling out limited-edition TVs or other big-ticket items solely for Thanksgiving and Black Friday. This makes it hard for buyers to determine whether a smokin' deal is actually all that hot, because there is no price history. Experts tell NBC News that these models also may be made with cheaper components or fewer features than products with a longer track record.
Experts agree Cyber Monday is the way to go when shopping for clothing and beauty products. This year, DealNews forecasts deals of at least half off outerwear, sweaters for less than $10, and even watches up to 75 percent off. The obvious downside of clothes shopping on Cyber Monday: Shoppers can't try before they buy. Free shipping is usually a gimme, but return policies need scrutiny. Look for free in-store returns if there's a location nearby or, if that's not an option, free return shipping.
Black Friday still rules deals on major toys, but DealNews cautions that in-store shoppers shouldn't ignore online deals at Amazon that day. In store, Target and Walmart are shoppers' best bets. The best buys in 2016 could include half off Lego sets and even up to 60 percent off popular toys from "Star Wars" and "Frozen." Toy shoppers shouldn't despair if they don't scratch everything off their lists on Black Friday. Deals stay hot in the weeks leading up to Christmas -- but remember that selection will dwindle, particularly for the hottest toys.
Most retailers don't exactly try very hard to keep their Black Friday deals secret. Entire websites are devoted to posting retailers' ads as soon as they're leaked. Shoppers who like to plan ahead can flip through at their leisure, check for high-priority deals, and arrange their shopping day accordingly. And there's some evidence that shoppers do just that, making purchases at nearly the same rate they visited stores last year, according to a survey by the International Council of Shopping Centers. In other words, consumers weren't just window shopping.
Yes, smartphones have made comparison shopping easier on Black Friday, but limited quantities and crowded stores still make double-checking prices a trickier, riskier prospect than at other times of year. In contrast, shoppers can take full advantage of a gamut of price trackers and comparison tools on Cyber Monday. (Just be sure to put items in your cart before double-checking a deal -- you never know when they'll sell out.) Go-to sites include Slickdeals, PriceGrabber, and Amazon-focused price tracker CamelCamelCamel. Firefox, Chrome, and Safari users can also download Invisible Hand, a browser add-on that automatically alerts shoppers if it finds a lower price on an item.
One dirty secret of Cyber Monday (and all holiday online shopping, for that matter): Occasionally, shoppers' orders get canceled if quantities run out -- and, of course, there's that pesky lag between ordering and delivery. For in-store shoppers on Thanksgiving and Black Friday, the items they grab can be theirs in a matter of minutes, no waiting required. A related Black Friday pro: It allows shoppers the opportunity to see, try on, or otherwise inspect purchases before plunking down their money, potentially saving time and frustration over Cyber Monday purchases that turn out to be a miss.
The more sinister cousin of instant gratification is impulse buying. Those last-minute add-ons can bust shoppers' holiday budgets. A staggering 30 to 50 percent of in-store purchases are impulse buys, according to one study. Of course, retailers are betting Black Friday buyers will buy something -- anything -- in order to justify the shopping trip, even when those limited-quantity doorbusters are all gone. It can be easier to resist impulse buys online: 79 percent of shoppers in a CreditCards.com survey said most of their impulse buys happen in store rather than on the web. Experts attribute that to a couple of factors: It often takes more effort to complete a transaction online, and in-store purchases more easily arouse emotions that push buyers to override any hesitance.
Black Friday is a bit less of a spectacle than it once was, with online sales and new Thanksgiving hours translating into more elbow room and shorter lines. Still, campouts in front of big-box stores probably won't go anywhere soon, and some shoppers relish Black Friday shopping and people-watching as a holiday tradition to equal turkey dinner. On the flip side, if the thought of scrambling through narrow store aisles with hundreds of hyped-up shoppers fills you with dread, the choice is clear: Cyber Monday means no lines or fistfights over that last special-edition Pokémon toy.
Got a big crowd in town for Thanksgiving or simply want to savor a rare long weekend with family? Save that shopping spree for Cyber Monday -- or confine Black Friday purchases to online shopping. Black Friday has bled into Thanksgiving Day, with many retailers opening that evening to offer doorbusters that used to be limited to the day after. (There has been increasing pushback against this tactic -- this year, a number of big-name stores won't open Thanksgiving, including Barnes & Noble, Costco, Home Depot, and Nordstrom.)