Retailers take a dark view of ads for Black Friday leaked to Web

November 10, 2005|By MIKE LANGBERG

A respectable Hewlett-Packard notebook computer for $398, with no messy mail-in rebates. A Plantronics Bluetooth wireless cell phone headset for $9.99. A Canon digital camcorder for $249.99.

These are some of the jaw-dropping bargains that await shoppers on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, when retailers lure holiday crowds with "doorbuster" discounts.

Consumers aren't supposed to learn about these deep discounts until Thanksgiving Day, when newspapers are stuffed like turkeys with colorful ad inserts.

But the Web has changed things. A loose community of bargain hunters has emerged online, and some are obtaining advance copies of Black Friday ads - often over the objection of retailers - and making the information public days or weeks in advance.

The ads, presumably provided surreptitiously by people involved in their printing or distribution, are often copyrighted, making it legally questionable to show them without permission.

Black Friday 2005 (bfads.net), one such site providing leaked ads, is run on a shoestring by San Jose, Calif., teenager Michael Brim, a freshman at California State Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo. The site doesn't guarantee the validity of the leaked ads, but it attracts plenty of people.

Home Depot Inc. got angry enough with Brim last year to have their lawyers give him a call.

They reached Brim on his cell phone during his calculus class at Piedmont Hills High School in San Jose, providing the vision of high-priced lawyers behind mahogany desks in a glass office tower with no notion they are talking to an adolescent running a Web site from his home.

Thanks to Brim and a rival site run by GottaDeal.com (blackfriday.gottadeal.com), the world can find out about the Black Friday deals.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. didn't meet Black Friday expectations last year, apparently because it lacked enough exciting deals. The No. 1 retailer apparently isn't going to get caught napping again. Its biggest doorbusters for Nov. 25, when its stores will open at 5 a.m., include two models of HP computers.

The HP Pavilion notebook will be available for $398 with a DVD/CD-RW combo drive and other amenities. That's $100 less than the prevailing price for bargain laptops that are less well-equipped.

Today's low prices also typically require waiting to receive $100 or more in mail-in rebates.

Wal-Mart also will sell an HP Pavilion desktop computer with a 15-inch LCD monitor for $398, again without requiring rebates. That's also $100 or more less than the price of previous bargain desktop systems. HP and Wal-Mart declined to comment on the impending deals.

RadioShack, Sears, Roebuck and Co. and others will offer deals including a Plantronics Bluetooth headset reportedly going for $9.99 - about $30 less than the regular selling price - along with an Axion portable DVD player for $59.99 and a Canon camcorder for $249.99, about $50 below regular price. A DVD player from Proton will sell for $19.99, less than the cost of many DVD movies.

The Black Friday sites always are careful to note that they can't guarantee their information, but postings in 2003 and 2004 proved overwhelmingly accurate.

Brim, 18, said he started Black Friday 2005 because he's a dedicated bargain hunter and because "it's neat giving back to the community."

His site drew a peak of 11 million unique visitors a day shortly before Black Friday 2004, he said, and brings in enough advertising revenue to cover its costs with a small amount left over.

In the black

Black Friday, which gets its name from the flood of black ink retailers hope for during the holiday season, started leaking online three years ago. FatWallet (fatwallet.com), a bargain-hunting Web site, drew legal threats from Wal-Mart, Target Corp. and Best Buy Co. in October 2002 for posting Black Friday prices in advance.

The retailers argued that the prices, not just the ads themselves, were protected by copyright law. They ultimately backed down, and FatWallet's message boards continue to discuss Black Friday deals

Meanwhile, a half-dozen or more Web sites devoted to Black Friday, including Brim's, have sprung up and gone a step further by posting scanned images of the ad inserts, potentially a much clearer violation of copyright law.

Threatening letter

Brim removed scans of the Black Friday ad insert from Sears last week after the company's lawyers faxed him a threatening 54-page letter. But the scans remain available on other sites, including GottaDeal.

This shows how the Web changes the game for retailers. Once information leaks out, it's hard to find every online nook and cranny where the information can hide, Brim said he copied the Wal-Mart ad scans on his site from GottaDeal.

Mike Langberg writes for the San Jose Mercury News.

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