Scratched and Dented: Tales from Black Friday

It is the patriotic duty of every American man, woman, and child to go shopping for a TV on Black Friday. After spending most of Thursday up-armoring me and my vehicle, I went to a Best Buy on Friday morning. Two observations: First, I lived to tell about it. Second, it takes about 20 minutes for the ambulance to drive from the Best Buy to the nearest ER.

I don't know why consumer electronics have become the de facto Black Friday purchase. But, they have. An estimated 51 million Americans (45% of all shoppers) bought or planned to buy consumer technology products during the Thanksgiving weekend. And TVs were the most popular item, at the top of 37% of shopping lists. That's because the big box stores price their TVs aggressively. Very aggressively. For example: 55" Samsung 4K ($899, Amazon and Best Buy); 65" Sharp Aquos ($688, H.H. Gregg); 65" Vizio D series ($648, Walmart); 60" LG plasma ($488, H.H. Gregg); 55" Vizio E Series ($478, Best Buy).

Brands and prices aside, all of the big box stores are equally suitable for getting your pancreas trampled. I chose to venture into a Best Buy. I arrived early, but not early enough. The parking lot was maxed out, the line wrapped around the crowd-control barricades and out past the porta-potties. Clearly, I had already missed the best buys. Undeterred, I eventually got into the store, that is, inside the belly of the beast.

Imagine a giant space with stacks and stacks of TV boxes that reach from floor to ceiling. Now multiply that number of boxes by 1,000 and that's how many people were trying to buy a TV. Now, when there are 1,000 buyers for every TV, someone's feelings are bound to get hurt. Also, many pancreases. Body surfing through the TV area, I did manage to make some observations. First, I expected to see at least a few 3D demos (their goofy double-vision look is easy to spot from far away). But, I didn't see even one. Not only is 3D dead and buried, it is also forgotten. I was interested to see whether there would be crowds in front of the curved TVs. At least in this store, on this Friday, there weren't.

Some customers were asking questions about OLED, but on Black Friday, all questions eventually turn to the question of price. Price is not a strong selling point for OLED. On the other hand, out of nowhere, price is suddenly a selling point for 4K, and 4K was clearly a hot item in this store. A good chunk of the crowds were standing in front of 4K screens, intently watching the demo loops and asking lots of questions.

Unfortunately, inadvertently or not, making an intelligent in-store decision about 4K is very tough. Shopping for a TV in a big box store is always ridiculous. Under the bright fluorescent lighting, the highly distracting and completely inaccurate hues of the budget screens, and looping demo videos ranging in quality from awesome to awful, you'll find that it's essentially impossible to evaluate the quality of any given screen. Now, multiply that impossibility by a Black Friday frenzy factor of a million and you'll understand that choosing the best TV is essentially a random act.

With 4K, your decision is worse than random. For starters, you are standing about 3 feet from a screen that when in your home you'll be seated 10 feet from. Your perception of resolution at 3 feet is somewhat more acute than your perception at 10 feet. Specifically, will you see the difference at home? Few customers, standing at 3 feet, consider this. Also, consider that the 4K demo loops are very specifically designed to highlight the resolution of 4K while concealing any potential limitations of that particular screen. For example, the demo loop mainly shows slow pans of furry animals—great for seeing pixel resolution up close, but hand-waving over the fact that the TV, for example, may have poor motion resolution. And, of course, unlike 99% of the content you'll actually see on your 4K TV, the demo video is 4K. Anyway, at least in this store, many customers were asking whether they should buy a really good HDTV at a low price or step up to 4K at a higher price or smaller screen. Whether or not to buy 4K is probably the toughest TV buying decision these days. The aggressive pricing on this Black Friday made either decision reasonably correct. Special sale prices aside, at another time and place, we can debate whether now is a good time to buy 4K.

Some other observations: The longest lines in the store were not at the check-out registers. They were comprised of people trying to buy a phone. Interestingly, the tablet area in the store was decidedly untrafficked; has the tablet craze been neutered by phablets? Finally, what about audio? As you might expect, the most common audio-product boxes walking out the door were long and skinny. Soundbars, of course.

Now, as I regain consciousness in the ICU, I have two things to say. First: a few years ago, in return for a $5 gift certificate, I signed a Do Not Resuscitate form. I hereby rescind that. Second, to the woman who sucker-punched me: I hope you enjoy that Vizio, but on Black Friday 2015, I am coming for you.

vqworks's picture

Ken, you're really brave for completing the Black Friday ordeal at a Best Buy.

As always, your articles are entertaining. Your a fun relic of Stereo Review. Don't retire, man!

Where did David Ranada go?

Oreo's picture

I too went to BB on BF, in Lafayette, LA. Likewise, the phone line was long, other areas, not so much. I got in, strolled around, and got out with the two items I went there for, a Chromecast and a 32GB flash drive. Total, $34.50.