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Does Black Friday pay off for Canadians?

·Marlene Skaff
Customers shop at a Walmart store in the Porter Ranch section of Los Angeles November 26, 2013. This year, Black Friday starts earlier than ever, with some retailers, including Wal-Mart, opening early on Thanksgiving evening. About 140 million people were expected to shop over the four-day weekend, according to the National Retail Federation. REUTERS/Kevork Djansezian (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS) (REUTERS)

Sherri Breaton has long been bitten by the Black-Friday discount bug, despite the chaos associated with the annual post-U.S. Thanksgiving shopping ritual, she plans to leave her job in Windsor, Ont., after her midnight shift and cross into neighbouring Detroit in the wee hours of Nov. 29.

Regardless of the Canadian business community’s recent push to grab a share of Black Friday dollars, Breaton has only missed the kickoff to the U.S. holiday shopping season twice in two decades.

While she hasn't seen any of the violence that now characterizes the notorious U.S. shopping day, she has joined the budget-conscious enthusiasts lining up in front of a Best Buy at 2 a.m.

"We would take turns waiting in the car. That was before we had cellphones, so we would use two-way radios to communicate with each other,"
Breaton says.

According to the U.S.National Retail Federation (NRF), the four-day Black Friday weekend is still attracting record numbers of consumers like Breaton.

In 2012, 247 million shoppers visited stores and websites over the Black Friday weekend, compared to 226 million in 2011, and total spending for the four days reached an estimated US$59.1 billion, the NRF reports.

Canadian shoppers won't miss out. An estimated 47 per cent of Canucks will shop on Black Friday, spending an average of C$292, a recent BMO survey reports.

But does braving long lines and fronting travel expenses really translate into actual savings?

Richard Feinberg, a professor of consumer science and retailing at Purdue University, says although it's helped push retailers back into the black – or profitability -- since the 1970s, Black Friday doesn't necessarily provide the best deals.

In promotions and advertising that begin as early as September, retailers are using key words and phrases that signal holiday shopping for consumers,” Feinberg is quoted as saying in the Purdue News from the Indiana university. “Door -buster sales aren't just for the Friday after Thanksgiving. They're for any Friday in October now."

Doug Stephens, a Toronto-based retail "futurist" and author of The Retail Revival: Re-Imagining Business for the New Age of Consumerism, says the savings for Canadians shopping in the U.S. on Black Friday are "undeniable."

Stephens says prices are "irrefutably lower in the U.S.," anywhere from 15 to 70 per cent compared to similar products in Canada, and that's partly owing to higher Canadian taxes but also the U.S.-Canada price gap.

Adds Stephens: "And when you talk about promotional activities, I would argue the price are much cheaper in the U.S. as well."

Retailers pulling out all the stops

As U.S. retailers struggle with a shorter shopping season this year and more discerning spenders, they're ramping up their efforts to keep Black Friday traffic steady.

Kmart stores have announced they’ll be open from 6 a.m. on Thursday to 11 p.m. on Black Friday, for 41 straight hours, with Sears stores slated to open 8 p.m. on Thursday until well into Friday. Wal-mart is also opening at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving, and its 40 pages of online ads include doorbuster deals such as $98 US for a 32-inch LED HDTV, guaranteed in stock for one hour.

Canadian retailers are following suit. Cadillac Fairview announced retailers at its 21 malls will open as early as 6a.m. on Friday with extended hours into the evening. And retail giants like Best Buy, Future Shop, Wal-Mart Canada, Canadian Tire, Leon's and Target Canada are just a few of the stores pitching deep discounts at the crack of dawn.

But even with Canadian stores jumping on the Black Friday bandwagon, pro-shopper Keith Pitts maintains the best deals are still in the U.S.

Pitts, author of the book The Canadian Cross-Border Shopping Guide who also blogs about his cross-border shopping experiences, splits his time between Toronto and Arizona.

He says you can stand to save more in the south of the border on many of the same products offered in Canada. In his blog, he gives several examples. For instance, he compares a Samsung stainless steel refrigerator on sale in the U.S. from $3,199 to $1,798 (a 44 per cent drop), to one in Canada going from $3,198 to $2,782 (a 13 per cent discount) from the same big-box retailer.