Now, we've gone on record as listing various reasons why you may want to avoid the mall on Black Friday, and we stand by that. But there's no denying that the doorbusters are attractive, and you can save hundreds on a TV or tablet if you're willing to line up on Thanksgiving.
And if you are going to line up, you want to be sure that it's at a store with truly spectacular deals. Now, we can pronounce judgment on which stores are truly worth visiting.
The Cream of the Crop
BradsDeals.com has been gathering and analyzing the ads as they've come out, and site founder Brad Wilson says there's really no contest when it comes to crowning a champ: It's Walmart (WMT).
"Walmart is just incredibly competitive," he says. "From a bricks and mortar standpoint, I think it's fair to say that Walmart is the best."
Looking at Walmart's ad, it's clear why it's a front-runner. The doorbusters include the last-generation iPad Mini for $299, with a $100 Walmart gift card thrown in; a 32-inch TV (albeit of an unspecified brand) for just $98; and a 60-inch Vizio TV (considered a premium brand) for a mere $688.
But what really makes Walmart a go-to destination on Thanksgiving night is that there's guaranteed availability of those doorbusters if you get there between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m.; if the store sells out of the item you want, you'll get a voucher that lets you buy it at that price online. That means you don't need to camp out all day to be first in line -- just be there when the doors open and you'll get whatever you had your eye on.
"They're really almost trying to do a hostile takeover of Black Friday," muses Wilson.
All the Rest
Walmart isn't alone in offering great deals, though. Michael Brim of BFAds.net, which likewise posts and analyzes Black Friday ads, says that Best Buy (BBY) and Target (TGT) join Walmart as the "Big Three" for Black Friday deals. For Best Buy, he points to a fantastic deal on a premium TV brand: A 55-inch LED TV from LG for just $500. If that's not big enough for you, it's also selling a 65-inch Samsung TV for $1,000. For this reason, he says that shoppers searching for a big TV for a trusted brand might want to start at Best Buy.
But Best Buy isn't stopping there -- like Walmart, it's also offering a big iPad deal.
Speaking of the iPad Air, Target may be your best bet for that. It will sell the 16 GB version for $479 -- $20 less than the retail price -- and will also throw in a $100 Target gift card. If you want a big TV but can't afford a premium brand, you can get a 50-inch Element TV for $229. There are also good deals on cookware and bedding, plus the Samsung Galaxy S4 phone for just $40 with two-year activation.
Beyond the "Big Three," other retailers have a few attractive doorbusters that might be of interest. Kohl's (KSS) and J.C. Penney (JCP) are both offering big deals on slow cookers, with the former offering a four-quart Crock-Pot for $8 and the latter offering a four-quart Hamilton Beach model for $10. Kmart (SHLD), meanwhile, has a washer/dryer set for $500, a great deal that's clearly targeted at the self-gifting crowd.
To this point, we haven't addressed the matter of toys. There's a reason for that: As we've noted in the past, Black Friday isn't really the best time to buy toys, which are likely to drop in price as get into December.
"Black Friday is probably not the best time to buy a toy," says Brim. "Two weeks [before] Christmas, stores will look at their supply and say 'We've got too many of what's supposed to be the hot Christmas toy.'"
Brim does make an exception to that rule: If one of the truly hot toys is available at a big discount on Black Friday and you know your child wants it, consider pulling the trigger. And that is indeed the case this year at a couple of retailers. Toys R Us has the Furby Boom -- widely considered one of the season's hottest toys -- for just $30, about half what you'd normally pay. It's also got the LeapFrog LeapPad 2 Explorer for $40, also about half the going price on most sites.
But once again, Walmart won't be topped: It's got the Furby Boom for $29, undercutting Toys R Us by a buck (and probably giving Toys R Us executives fits). And unlike Toys R Us, it offers that one-hour in-stock guarantee, so customers showing up when the doors open will be guaranteed to get one of the season's hottest toys at half-price.
Yes, Walmart seems determined to crush the competition this Black Friday.
Playing the Spoiler: Amazon's Inevitable Deals
Of course, there's one competitor that's not so easily crushed, and that's Amazon (AMZN). The online retailer is always competitive on Thanksgiving and Black Friday, but it doesn't release a Black Friday ad like its bricks-and-mortar competitors. As such, it's hard to know what to expect.
"There's not too much advanced insight on what they're doing, and a lot of their stuff is seemingly reactionary -- a sale will just pop up," says Brim. Further complicating things are that the offers disappear almost as quickly as they appear, with many of their "Lightning Deals" selling out within seconds. Still, Brim says he wouldn't be surprised to see Amazon match some of the best doorbuster deals on TVs and other electronics, so fast-clicking online shoppers might do just as well as the folks camped out at the mall.
For a guaranteed crack at some great deals, your best bet is Walmart. But if the thought of storming the local Walmart with thousands of other shoppers makes you break out into a cold sweat, you could do a lot worse than curling up on the couch with a laptop and seeing what Amazon has to offer.
Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.