The hype around sales creates the impression that every offer is worth trampling over fellow shoppers to get to, with retailers slashing prices to historically low levels for one day only. But our research has found that's rarely the case.
We tracked the prices of the products sold in 2017's Black Friday deals across a full year - for six months before Black Friday and six months afterwards. The goal was simple: to find out whether Black Friday deals really are the rock-bottom prices many shoppers expect.
And the answer? Usually not.
We found that 87% of the Black Friday deal items we investigated were available for the same price or cheaper at other times of the year.
The deals we looked at included 94 of the most popular tech, home and personal care products.
Many of us rush to buy products on Black Friday assuming that they won't be that cheap again for a long time. But in 86% of the cases we looked at, the items cost the same price or less in the six months following Black Friday, while 46% could be found cheaper than their Black Friday price on at least one day in the six months afterwards.
Even when extending the period of ‘Black Friday’ to the two weeks surrounding the day itself, to include Black Friday week and Cyber Monday deals, 74% could be picked up for the same price or less in the six months afterwards.
Some 64% of Which? members we asked said they would expect prices to be lowest during a sale when compared to the previous six months, but as our research shows this isn't always the case. In fact, just 13% of the products we tracked were only at their very cheapest price on Black Friday.
So before you rush into impulse-buying a discounted coffee machine or tablet over the winter sales period, read on for our advice on how to work out whether a deal is real.
1. Check the price of the product on offer across multiple shops
This is the most basic check you can do, but our research found that 13% of Black Friday shoppers didn't do this in 2017.
We've often found that more than one shop will sell a product at a similar price, but only one claims that the price is a special offer.
For example, if four shops are selling the same washing machine for £250 but only one is claiming it's a special offer at 'Now £250, was £300', it's a pretty good indicator that the price is not a particularly special deal.
Of course, if you're happy to pay £250 for that particular washing machine, that's fine. But don't snap it up thinking you're getting a bargain.
2. Check the price history
Use our reviews to make a shortlist of the products you want to look out for in the sales, before they go on offer. Make a note of the current price at the same time.
By taking note of prices before a sale period, you can check how any discounts compare to the usual selling price.
3. Look out for notes or signs explaining offers
The rules that govern special offers are vague. In some instances, shops can get away with using 'was' prices that haven't been used for a long time if they put up a sign explaining the deal. Tactics like these can make offers look better than they are.
We've seen notes that explained the product was actually only at the higher price for a fortnight, six months before the current offer.
We've seen these notes in many guises, from the relatively explicit to the completely buried - where we've had to scroll through masses of small print to uncover vague wording - so it's worth doing some thorough research.
4. Be wary of 'was prices' or RRP comparisons
In our experience, offers like ‘was £100, now £50’ tend to exaggerate the discount you're getting.
The RRP (recommended retail price) is a manufacturer's price, and any RRPs used are meant to reflect the current market value of that product.
However, we've found instances where the RRP the shop was using to compare the current price against was out of date, so didn't reflect the current value of the product.
It's much better to check against other shops' prices to try to work out the true value of the item you're buying.
5. But do try to find out what the real RRP is
Not all manufacturers have RRPs, but some do and choose to display them on their own websites. If you have a product in mind you'd like to buy, check the manufacturer's website to find out what its true price is.
We found a couple of Black Friday 'offers' in 2015 where Argos was selling the product for more than the RRP, despite claiming it was a discount.
Getting the most from sales periods isn't just about avoiding dodgy special offers. There's no point in getting a good deal on a bad product, as you'll end up wasting your money on something that's not right for you. So check out our reviews first so you know what you're looking out for.