Black Friday just isn’t what it used to be. Gone are the frigid, windy early mornings your parents spent camping out in front of a Sears or Wal-Mart store in order to buy a new TV. Now, Black Friday starts as early as Thanksgiving morning and runs for a four-day “Gray Holiday,” and most major retailers’ promotions, discounts, and sales are available in their brick-and-mortar and online stores.

Let me be clear, Black Friday isn’t what it used to be, but it’s still crazy.

As if the luxury of browsing sales from the comfort of their own (warm and toasty) homes isn’t enough, online shoppers have yet another edge on the days of poor old Ma and Pa camping out in the cold: many of today’s most attractive, last-minute Black Friday “flash sales” are offered exclusively online, as box stores and chains gauge their competitors’ sales strategies and adapt accordingly.

That’s not to say, however, that your parents have nothing to offer a savvy online shopper. If they were shrewd Black Friday shoppers – and anyone tough enough to brave early winter weather for a Sears and Roebuck washer/dryer combo surely qualifies as such – then they were probably applying the basic principles of project management to their Black Friday shopping, whether they realized it or not.

Project Management?

Yes, you read correctly: a working knowledge of project management can help you maximize your returns (and minimize your headaches) this Black Friday weekend. That’s because project management, though far from simple, is a widely applicable discipline that appeals to both logic and intuition. Apply the five process groups (aka the “traditional phased approach”), and you could be on your way to unprecedented savings and a Black Friday victory.

Phase 1: Initiation

Arguably the most important stage in any project, initiation is your chance to define your objectives and narrow your focus to the best of all foreseeable outcomes. Be as specific as possible when initiating: Do you want to cross every name off your holiday shopping list for under $200? Secure at least one “me gift” for 50% or less?

Once your goals are decided, make a list of all the resources you’ll need and secure them. Again, be as specific as possible. Need to wake up at 3 a.m. Friday morning? Perhaps an obnoxious new ringtone is in order.

Tip: Gather the price history for major purchases. Retailers love to capitalize on the cost-saving “aura” that permeates Black Friday. A “deal” is just a word, unless you’ve actually done your homework.

  • Use sites like and Life Hacker’s Best Time to Buy Anything in 2012 for user and expert reviews in addition to price predictions

Phase 2: Planning & Design

The more clearly defined your objective(s), the easier it will be to design a strategy and plan your time accordingly. Project management software, such as Mavenlink, can prove helpful at this stage, although straightforward, single-tier outcomes may not require it. What’s critical is that all project tasks, and the time necessary for their completion, be broken down into discrete, manageable steps that you can refer back to throughout the duration of the project.

Phase 2 is also when professional project managers establish a budget. Because Black Friday shopping is, in fact, all about the budget, chances are you set one during initiation, but don’t forget to factor in contingencies. For instance, if you do plan on shopping at a brick-and-mortar, consider food and beverage costs; if you’re using your phone to download coupons or stay in touch with a fellow shopper, prepare for data or messaging charges.

Tip: When shopping online, schedule time to look around for in-cart coupons or other unadvertised discounts at multiple retailers; many Black Friday promotions reward consumer loyalty with last-minute price cuts.

  • Setup Google Alerts for items and stores
  • Do diligent Black Friday research
  • Download Black Friday apps for real-time notifications, shopping lists, and Black Friday ad scans:

Phase 3: Execution  

Now it’s time to put your careful planning into action. While it may be the simplest, the third phase in traditional project management is also the most perilous: no amount of design or planning can prevent the unexpected. Your best bet? Be prepared for obstacles. The lines are always longer than expected, so show up earlier. You are going to get hungry and thirsty, so pack some snacks but be mindful of the outcome.

Tip: Keep things in perspective. In all but the truly shopping-averse, making a purchase of any kind stimulates the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. This is particularly true when we feel we’re getting the most for our money. Bring a backpack for food, drinks, and other necessities, such as an iPad with headphones, but keep it light.

Phase 4: Monitor and Control

The fourth stage of project management, “monitor and control,” is simply shorthand for the process of establishing and maintaining a feedback loop during execution. Even if you’re leading a team of one, “check in” regularly and be open to replanning. While you want to keep your initial goals firmly in mind, being too wedded to one exact outcome can work against you in the long run: focus on just one brand or model, and you may miss the stellar deal on a comparable—or even better—product.

Tip: Consider different colors, especially if the product’s utility trumps its style. Electronics, especially, may go for less in “unusual” or very bright colors. Model numbers often indicate color, so experiment with simplified versions when browsing for deals online. If you are waiting in line, be sure to listen and analyze the buzz around certain products. This will help ensure that by the time you get inside or when they hand out a voucher you will be a recipient.

Phase 5: Project Close

Phase 5 is your opportunity to bring official closure to this year’s Black Friday shopping experience. The degree of formality (or lack thereof) you bring to your project’s close is, of course, a matter of preference, but whether your completion ritual takes place in an office or a Waffle House, be sure to document the entire project thoroughly. Include some frank reflection on what went well—and not-so-well—and jot down any questions, concerns, or ideas that cropped up during execution. You’ll be glad you did this next year.

Ryan Sauer is a search engine marketer, technology enthusiast, and self-proclaimed connect four sensei. He is a Social Media Award Winner for the 2012 Google Online Marketing Challenge. You can follow him on Twitter @rlcsauer

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