Blackwashing: Black Friday deals that really aren't

people in line on black fridayThey call it "Christmas creep" -- that gradual advance of the holiday season that, year by year, means the decorations are up earlier and earlier so retailers can get you in a spending mood sooner. Black Friday is now practically bolted into the American calendar as another national holiday, so is it a surprise that retailers are pushing their luck with that, too?

I call it "blackwashing." Like "greenwashing," with which companies try to make themselves look golden by touting a few meaningless environmental initiatives, blackwashing is what happens when a sale is promoted as a Black Friday deal when it's really not. Either it's a normal discount offered for a long period that just happens to include Black Friday, or it's not much of a deal at all.

Take International Hotels Group, which launched a perfectly good promotion -- get $50 off a flight anywhere as long as you stay one weekend night at one of its hotels (including Holiday Inn and Staybridge Suites) there and follow it at @IHG_Deals on Twitter -- as a Black Friday deal. But rather than being good for hotel stays on Black Friday weekend, as you might expect, or only being sold during Black Friday weekend, the deal is for sale starting November 1 and is good all the way until the end of April.

It's really a standard promotion -- definitely not "Black Friday" deep -- offered over standard dates, but like a parasite, it's hitching onto true, blink-and-miss-it Black Friday deals as a way of stealing a little of the spotlight. Several respected publications took the bait.

I asked an IHG press representative what made a promotion like that a Black Friday deal. The response: "As some Black Friday deals are beginning to start earlier, we decided to begin Nov. 8, but it will end at midnight on Cyber Monday. During this booking period, you can make reservations for stays Nov 1-April 30, 2011."

In other words, "Black Friday creep."

Brad Wilson, the force behind BradsDeals.com and BlackFriday2010.com, has tracked blackwashing first-hand. "Last year, we launched BlackFriday2009.com on November 5. This year, we launched about three weeks earlier, and the minute that we launched, we were getting 30,000 or 40,000 visits that first week. The whole season has gone from Black Friday to Black November."

Most stores can't sustain heavy discounting for the five weeks leading up to the actual Black Friday, leading to a widespread blackwashing of otherwise standard deals.

"In no uncertain terms stores are re-purposing their weekly circulars and slapping a Black Friday stamp on it, and it's working," said Wilson. "The Black Friday brand is so powerful that retailers are trying to apply it to almost anything because they know that shoppers are going to take a look."

Some people may argue that any sale that happens to be valid on Black Friday is a Black Friday sale, but most of us consider it to be a special pursuit, and most of us see the day after Thanksgiving as the starting line for the holiday shopping season. True Memorial Day sales aren't held over to April and June, either.

Some major retailers, too, are muddying the definition of Black Friday, or worse, are using the day's herd mentality to slip in non-deals amongst the genuine finds. Keep an appraising eye on the deals offered by Sears, Kmart, and Toys R Us, which in particular are gaining a reputation for taking advantage of Black Friday crowds to move lamely discounted merchandise, and make sure what you buy is truly discounted off the normal price.

Other blackwashing tactics including claiming an item is on sale when the discount is actually very slight, or inflating the standard retail price before discounting.

Shoppers also often grab duds amongst the doorbusters, especially once the limited stock of true deep discounts is exhausted, and in the frenzy fail to notice the deal isn't very sharp.

Wilson cited Overstock.com, Amazon.com, and Walmart as three major retailers who backed up their "Black Friday creep" with "legitimate, all-time low prices," as he put it.

But if companies slap a "Black Friday" onto the promotion, as IHG has done, and they put a little public relations muscle behind promoting it, they may get some sales mileage out of something that would (and probably should) pass with little notice.

Remember one of our golden rules of holiday shopping 'gotchas': It's not a deal just because the seller says it is. It's a deal because you know it to be so.

With all the Black Friday websites that are now online, it's easy to do advance price comparisons and find out what the true going rate of merchandise is. You are empowered to compare prices before heading out to the stores on the big day.

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