By Mike Snider, USA TODAY
Lisa Finelli and Kyle Gaddie do not know each other and live nearly a continent apart. But they are on the same quest: the Black Friday hunt for a bargain big-screen TV.
"I've been waiting two months to buy a flat-screen TV," says Finelli, 31, a Black Friday first-timer who plans to scout a Boston-area Best Buy for a 40-to-46-inch replacement for her small Samsung.
Meanwhile, Gaddie, 22, of Laramie, Wyo., has been "looking around a bit" for an even bigger TV, 47 inches to 55 inches, and hopes to find a Black Friday bargain for less than $600. "I'll buy a TV for the right deal," he says.
The good news for both of them - and the rest of the holiday shopping horde - is that TV bargains should be plentiful on Black Friday and during the rest of the holiday season. Right now, retailers from Best Buy to Walmart are dangling TVs of all sizes as Black Friday bait.
TVs remain a hot gift, second only to tablets, says Steve Kidera of the Consumer Electronics Association. "Part of that is that TVs are still a shared experience and tend to be gifts the whole family can enjoy."
Most eye-catching are the historic sub-$100 lows on small HDTVs. Kmart and Sears have 32-inch LCD s that are doorbuster-priced at $97 or less. As the displays get larger, the prices grow, too, but not by much. Amazon.com and Best Buy both are advertising a 40-inch 1080p Toshiba display for $179.99.
In the 50-inch category, Target has a Westinghouse display priced at $349. Elsewhere, other 50-inch sets might be found for less than $500. And Walmart has a 60-inch Vizio with built-in Wi-Fi and apps for $698.
For retailers and TV makers, "Price is really what they have to sell this year. There were some really good deals last year, but they keep coming down," says Jordan Selburn, analyst for research firm IHS. When sets get below the $200 mark, he says, "That becomes an impulse buy price. You start thinking, 'You know, we could use a TV in the bathroom.'"
Black Friday shoppers need to remember that quantities of the super bargain sets are typically limited, says Phil Swann, who tracks Black Friday deals on his news site TVPredictions.com. The sub-$100 TVs "are going to go pretty fast," he says.
To that end, Walmart has a new one-hour guarantee deal for a 32-inch Emerson LCD TV priced at $148. The retailer guarantees that anyone in the store and in line seeking that TV before 11 p.m. on Thanksgiving night will either get one then or a card guaranteeing it will be shipped before Christmas. "This is what Black Friday is all about," says Walmart spokeswoman Sarah Spencer, "providing really great deals on TVs."
And the good TV deals go beyond the doorbuster promotions. With current regular prices on 60-inch displays from Vizio and Sharp coming in at $999.99, shoppers can watch for better deals over the coming weeks. "Those are good prices for sets that large," Swann says. "If you are looking to upgrade to a bigger picture and you can find your way to a 50-or-60-inch set that's $900 or below, that is a good deal."
A sign of the times when it comes to prices: The average retail price on a 50-inch flat panel TV has fallen to $631 from $833 in 2010, according to market tracking firm The NPD Group.
The bigger the better
Price has become the killer app for TVs because newer features - such as smart TV and 3-D - have not caught on with the masses, even though TV makers have made them standard features on most sets.
Fewer electronics shoppers, 33% down from 41% last year, said they wanted smart TV features - apps that connect you to streaming movies, social networks, games, news, weather and even exercise, a recent survey by Parks Associates found. But
when asked whether they wanted a set that connected to the Internet and sported 3-D, consumer interest rose to 29%, compared with 23% last year.
That small increase could be a sign that shoppers aren't clear what a smart TV is - or that many sets also have built-in Wi-Fi capability. "If the price is comparable, go ahead and get the smart TV with Internet capabilities," advises Parks analyst Heather Way.
Still, size is what's on most shoppers' minds - and the bigger the better. Nearly three-fourths, 72%, of consumers who said they plan to buy a TV this holiday season will buy one 40 inches or larger, up from 65% last year, according to the CEA.
"Definitely, this will be the season of the big screen - where we really see more consumers step up to that 50-to-60-inch screen size," says NPD analyst Ben Arnold.
Flat-panel TVs are on the wish lists of more than one-fifth (26%) of electronics shoppers, an increase from 20% in 2010, Parks found. And the lower across-the-board prices have not been lost on consumers, many of which plan to spend more on electronics than last year, Way says.
Prices are also dropping on rear-projection TVs, such as Mitsubishi's 73-inch DLP TV, which can be found for less than $1,000. But many consumers have set their sights on flat panels, which take up less space than rear-projection sets that can be 2 feet thick.
In fact, flat-panel displays are in more than two-thirds of all U.S. homes; according to market tracking firm NPD Group.
"We'll see some really good discounts on the upper sizes, particularly in 50 inches and above," says NPD's Arnold.
Retailers and TV makers alike hope that some buyers, attracted by doorbuster models, will instead opt to spend more for a bigger or better display. Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, kicks off a nine-day period during which the industry expects to take in about 15% of the year's sales.
TV shopping tips
Some shopping tips:
• Take a good long look. "Keep in mind that not all TVs are created equal. You are going to have that TV on your wall a long time," says Matt Seymour, director of marketing at Sony Electronics. "We recommend people go into the store and really let their eyes decide."
• Make it personal. Bring your favorite movie on Blu-ray Disc and ask a salesperson to pop it in. And don't be afraid to ask someone to turn the channel. "I would say watch some sports and animation and movies and watch during the time of day and in a (similar) environment where you are going to do the majority of your watching," says Joe Stinziano, senior vice president of home entertainment for Samsung. "It's all about personal preference."
• Get real. Manufacturers often crank up brightness on displays to make their models stand out, Seymour says. Adjust the set and take note of the contrast - the difference between the light and darkness - and especially look for detail in the darker parts of the picture.
• Smart or not. Nearly all sets from top TV makers - including LG, Panasonic, Samsung, Sharp, Sony and Vizio - can, when connected to the Internet, stream from Amazon, Hulu, Netflix and YouTube. Some newer sets have built-in Wi-Fi, too. If you find a TV set that has a picture you like but doesn't have the smart TV features you desire, remember you can always connect a smart Blu-ray Disc player (some Black Friday prices are sub-$50) or a product such as Apple TV, Boxee or Roku to be the Net-connected brains of the set, says Phil Swann, who tracks Black Friday deals on his news site TVPredictions.com.
• Bring your smartphone. Don't be afraid to compare prices. Walmart will match any advertised price and, Swann says, if Amazon sells for $300 less and doesn't charge shipping, "you are crazy not to save the $300."
Newest high-tech TV features
TV makers continue to explore ways to make their sets stand out.
Higher-end Samsung Smart TVs - from 46-inch models starting at about $1,500 to the new top-of-the-line 75-inch flagship set priced at $9,999.99 - use facial recognition that identifies each family member.
Viewers can use their voice to tell the TV what to do and gestures to navigate menus and even play Angry Birds on the TV. Content can easily be shared between Samsung TVs, tablets and phones. "It's all about flexibility and providing consumers with the ability to interact however they want," says Joe Stinziano, senior vice president of home entertainment for Samsung.
Sony touts its X-Reality Pro digital video processor, found on the holiday-priced $800 55-inch LED Internet TV. The dual processor improves the picture quality of video sources, including streaming content, says Matt Seymour, director of marketing at Sony Electronics. "It takes whatever you are watching and really brings it to life."
Panasonic's 50-inch plasma 3D Smart TV (model P50ST50), which retails for about $1,000, has built-in WiFi, eight microspeakers and is Consumer Reports' best buy at that size category.
Sharp has focused on providing bigger LCD displays, topping out at a 90-inch set at $10,999.99. And LG Electronics adds a gesture-based Magic Remote on its upper-tiered LCD and plasma Smart TVs including a 42-inch LCD model for $749 with six pairs of 3D glasses and one year of Netflix instant streaming.
Improvements in manufacturing have dispelled most concerns about plasma displays not looking good in well-lit rooms and LCD sets having motion blur and less-than-stellar dark values.
TV makers have gotten better at making bigger sets with improved picture quality at lower prices. But the declining prices have left many TV makers, including Panasonic, Sharp and Sony, struggling. "That's why the TV industry is flat right now," says Phil Swann, of TVPredictions.com. "There's nothing that has got everybody all revved up."
Super-thin, vibrant OLED TVs have yet to appear in stores. And while new Ultra HD displays, with four times the resolution of current HDTVs, are arriving, they remain priced at about $20,000 and above, well beyond the budgets of most buyers.