The Secrets Behind Black Friday Leaks

Why retailers increasingly release information about sales far ahead of schedule.

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Word is already out: Black Friday sales, which traditionally begin the Friday after Thanksgiving, have been leaked to websites and news outlets throughout the country. If you want to find out what discounts your favorite store is offering, chances are that a little digging online will reveal them. BlackFriday2010.com, which is run by coupon site Brad's Deals, already lists discounts from Ace Hardware and Sears.

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Before you give too much credit to the sleuthing skills of the websites that post these early deals, consider this: Many retailers leak their sales early, on purpose. Sears, for example, started offering its Black Friday deals on Fridays and Saturdays starting at the end of October, and scored a lot of free publicity as a result. (The company also ran television ads promoting its early start on the shopping holiday.)

Early leaks are a relatively new strategy says Ellen Davis, vice president at the National Retail Federation, and even now, retailers still want to control buzz about their discounts as much as possible. "They don't want their Black Friday deals to get out too early because then you tip your hand to the competition. If you're offering $9 crockpots, then your competition might offer them for $8," she says.

Sometimes the leaks are unauthorized. "Retailers found that the circulars were leaked by a vendor who might have been printing them, or someone inside the company who didn't have permission to do so," says Davis.

Early previews that aren't endorsed can be frustrating for retailers, she says, because they might change their mind about sales as the date gets closer, or their promotions might vary by location. That's one reason many stores keep their biggest discounts under wraps until the day of the sale.

And not every store wants their sales leaked early. Wal-Mart, for example, is notorious for keeping its deals private and even issuing warnings to any websites that post information.

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"One of the tactical things they can do to get more attention for their own sales is to let it out really quickly, or pull a Wal-Mart and try to keep it as under wraps as they can until a few days before," says Brad Wilson, publisher of Brad's Deals. He says he usually gets early information about sales from companies themselves. Sometimes, employees from the companies pretend to be average consumers who have discovered sale information in the hopes of promoting it on his site, he says.

Along with the early leaks, many companies are also offering earlier-than-usual sales themselves. In addition to Sears, Amazon, Target, and Toys 'R Us are getting a head start on Black Friday by discounting their sale items weeks ahead of Thanksgiving.

For shoppers, though, part of the secret to mastering Black Friday sales is to ignore a lot of the early hype. The National Retail Federation's Davis says consumers shouldn't put too much trust into third-party websites that sometimes post incorrect information. The best source is retailers' websites, she says.

All Black Friday information will be released by Monday or Tuesday of Thanksgiving week, says Dan de Grandpre, founder of DealNews.com. "There are a lot of rumors ahead of time, but they're not always accurate," he says. If you see details of a leaked ad online, it might be an early draft of sales that could change.

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PriceGrabber.com's president Laura Conrad recommends following the Twitter feeds of your favorite retailers so you can be first to receive their deal announcements. The Shopping Blog website also runs a popular Black Friday Twitter feed (@BlackFriday).

To nab the best deals, you'll probably need to get out of bed early and shop in-person, says Wilson of Brad's Deals. "Ninety-five percent of Black Friday items are available online, but some of the best limited-quantity deals are in-store only," he says.