Stop! Think twice before you rush for that bin of bargain electronics

All I needed was ice.

I was running late, and I’d promised myself I wouldn’t get distracted. But no sooner had I walked into one of those “everything” stores, than was confronted by more than 200 boxes of discounted socks. Despite a sweet deal on Dockers, I pressed on. Three aisles later I passed a stand of heavily discounted Blu-ray discs, craning my neck to peek as I zoomed by at breakneck speed (was that Ghostbusters for $4.99?!). After loading my cart up with seven giant bags of ice, I made a line for the nearest register, where I reminded myself that I already have five packs of gum and like three flavors of Chapstick. As I finally shove my 140-pound frozen load toward the doors after paying, I’m confronted by one final temptation: a holiday bargain bin sitting outside the electronics department.

You’ve been there.  Retailers lure us with unavoidable end-cap displays shouting “BUY THIS STUFF” from around every corner. They’ve been doing this for weeks, but Black Friday is upon us now and holiday shopping season is about to get real. The clock is ticking, stakes are high, and you’re at your most vulnerable for making an unwise purchase at one of those very displays – especially when they contain electronics.

We’re here as your voice of reason: Those deals aren’t deals at all. Here’s why you should steer clear of bad Black Friday deals and bargain bin electronics like a 30-pound fruit cake.  

You’re being manipulated

Walmart Bargain BinThis is how they get you: Retailers strategically place these shiny displays of cool-looking gadgets and awesome tech toys around their stores with jaw-joppingly low price tags. You can’t help but look and wonder who in your life might appreciate such a gift. And since most of these displays are stocked with stuff that appeals to nearly everyone, you inevitably think to yourself, “That would be perfect for <insert name of friend or loved one here>!” You snag the gizmo gift without further consideration, satisfied at your thoughtfulness and the fact that you are now one step closer to freeing yourself from the shackles of holiday shopping hell. But in truth, you’ve just thrown your money away.

I know this not because I used to develop merchandising plans for a large regional retailer (true), but because I’ve gotten sucked in by these vortexes of value, too. That day I went for ice, I almost walked out with what would almost certainly have been a disappointing gift. Don’t blame yourself.  Bargain bins are designed to encourage impulse purchases. And while that may be fine for a Loofah or a travel-pack of Old Spice toiletries, you should never, ever buy electronics on a whim.

Cheap crap is usually crap

In the bin next to the thing that I almost bought, which shall remain nameless (it totally wasn’t a set of Hello Kitty walkie talkies), was a mountain of small Bluetooth speakers.  These things were cute and shiny and colorful and inexpensive and wireless! How bad could they possibly be?

 If the difference between the least expensive model and the next one up is only $20, spend the extra money.

Take it from someone who has evaluated more than 70 portable wireless speakers this year: They’re pretty bad. The Bluetooth chip used in these devices is of the lowest possible quality, and that means that not only is the sound quality doomed to AM radio-like lameness, but the wireless range is probably terrible. I’m talking about three or four feet at best. Then there’s the plastic enclosure, which is probably just one drop away from cracking, if not breaking apart entirely. And the battery life? If it isn’t terrible to start with, it will be after a few charges.

Sure, a case can be made for the occasional $15 stocking stuffer that might not make it through the night. If the recipient is young and that gift buys them 6 hours of entertainment, then maybe it is worth it. But in all other circumstances, these bargain-bin gizmos should be avoided. These devices aren’t made to last long or perform well; they only stand to get the recipient’s hopes up, only to let them down later.

But even the big stuff can disappoint

In most stores, throw-away deals have now either crept out of the bins and onto store shelves or flopped into a huge pile on the floor. In electronics, formerly big-ticket items can be commoditized and sold one year for a fraction of what they cost the year before, which makes them look like a real bargain. But they’re not.

Case in point: the Blu-ray player. Once a practically unsellable high-definition replacement for the DVD player, a Blu-ray player can now be had for less cash than it takes to buy a DVD/VHS combo. You could even find them with built-in Wi-Fi and Internet apps for Netflix and Hulu baked right in for around $70 last year. I should know, because I did. And I bought two of them.

Clearance ElectronicsYes, you would think I would know better, but in my defense, the players were built by a reputable manufacturer. I remember thinking at the time: Even if these only last a year or two, it will have been worth it. They didn’t make it nearly that long.

Within four months, I got a call from my friend explaining that the player was “dead.” A few weeks later my brother called to report my gift had developed “issues.” Both of them were fortunate enough to be able to trade them in for credit toward better models because of the generous, customer-centric store policies. Not everyone will be so fortunate, though. Aside from that, nobody wants to be known as the one who gives the gifts that die.

You get what you pay for

It’s a cliché for a reason.

It’s kind of sad that I had to re-learn this lesson the hard way after I’d preached it for years, but sometimes that’s what it takes. Do yourself a favor, though, and learn from my mistake instead of making one for yourself.

Let’s all say it together, now: You get what you pay for.

More often than not, you really do get what you pay for. It true that on the expensive end of this cliché’, we run into something we call the point of diminishing returns. But on the cheap end all we run into is garbage. Manufacturers have this stuff all figured out. They’ve worked out how to make something at minimum cost that will last a little longer than the warrantee on average, crank out a limited number of them, sell them all during a buying frenzy, and come out with a tidy profit. It’s like gambling in Vegas. The cards are stacked against you.

There are (rare) exceptions

Once in a very great while, there are exceptions to the aforementioned rules. In retailer lingo, these rare deals are known as loss leaders. A loss leader is a product sold for less than it cost the retailer to buy it. The retailer loses money on every sale of that product. However, that loss is well-calculated. The idea is to offer a deal so attractive, it gets customers through the door and buying other products on which the store is making big-time profit. If you’re smart, you walk in, grab the loss leader item, and walk right out (after you’ve paid, of course). Rarely does that end up being the case, though.

How can I tell the difference between what’s good and what’s bad?

Generally speaking, brands you’ve never heard of or are only familiar with for making super-cheap products are bad.

If the name of the brand starts with a lower-case ‘i’ be suspect. iHome has been known to make some decent stuff, but I’ve never met an iBrand outside of Apple that I really liked or trusted. Likewise, steer clear of advanced electronics made by companies that usually only make accessories. I’m not likely to trust a speaker branded by Memorex or Belkin, for instance.

Bargain Bin

If it seems too good to be true, then it probably is.

Hey, since we’re doing clichés, I thought I would throw another in.

The cheapest model of even a popular brand is rarely a good deal

That Blu-ray player I mentioned earlier is a perfect example. If the difference between the least expensive model and the next one up is only $20, spend the extra money. Even if the higher-priced model comes with features you don’t think you need. It’s not about features , it’s about build quality.

Do your research – ahead of time if possible

Most retailers publish their Black Friday deals well ahead of the dark day. Do some research online and see if you can find any professional reviews. Of course, we suggest you start here at Digital Trends, but a search at Google using the name of the product followed by the word ‘review’ works well. If you can’t find pro reviews, then resort to user reviews at online retailers, which usually pop up on the first page of search results. If you can’t check ahead of time, try to keep a smart phone handy while shopping so you can search on the fly.

If you can’t find a review, that’s a red flag. Skip it.

Black Friday is a maddening ordeal for those who choose to participate, and the days that follow aren’t a whole lot better. Make the smart move and plan ahead. Do your research ahead of time. And go in resolved not to impulse buy. You and the recipients of your gifts will be happier for it. 

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