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Last week, Target announced that the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, shoppers can get exclusive access to 20 deals on Target.com.

But there's a catch.

In exchange for sneak peeks and early access, you have to pledge your loyalty to the big box retailer - in the form of signing up for a Target REDcard.

Of course, you get more than just early access. The Target REDcard also comes with year-round benefits, like 5 percent off all purchases and free shipping.

Pretty good deal, right? Well… maybe not.

Loyalty programs put you “on the hook”
The problem with a Black Friday offer like Target's is that you're signing away your personal information, says Jeff Somogyi, media editor at dealnews.com.

“Last year a lot of retailers offered sneak peeks for a Facebook 'like,' says Somogyi. “But companies are moving away from the cheap Facebook 'like' and are now using 'stickier' offers like tying Black Friday to loyalty programs.”

And he says that while “some of these loyalty programs are fairly harmless, others put a lot of hooks in you.”

Lowe's is an example of a company that offered a low-commitment deal: “If you signed up for their MyLowe's card, they'd let you see what they're going to put on promotion,” he says. “All the card does is track your purchases. Fairly innocent.”

On the other hand, Target requires a pretty serious commitment, since their REDcard is a debit or credit card: “That becomes a financial entanglement,” he says.

Also, if the offer is only for a sneak peek, you could be coughing up your info only to get a peek at deals you could've learned about on Google: “Once a company lets one person see a Black Friday ad, it's going to be on the Internet immediately. There's no point in signing up,” says Somogyi.

So why would anyone consider signing up for a loyalty program just to get Black Friday perks?

Why shoppers trade loyalty for early access to Black Friday deals
There are a couple of reasons why shoppers would sign up for store cards in return for sneak peeks and exclusive access to sale items.

First, Black Friday shoppers crave information. Many serious bargain hunters begin searching for the best deals weeks in advance. Some extreme Black Friday shoppers start planning months in advance, like Joni Crothers and 16 of her friends and family members. Last year, they started meeting in July to discuss strategy. The group shopped for 17 hours on Black Friday and didn't even stop to eat. They came away with $10,000 worth of items, which they bought for just $2,000. All of the items were donated to local families in need.

Second, Black Friday shoppers want to be first. In fact, every year people are injured by rushing mobs and violent shoppers. Last year, a teenage girl in a Michigan Walmart was knocked over and stepped on several times when caught in the rush for discounted electronics. Other violent incidents included a fight over $1.88 towels and a woman who pepper-sprayed other shoppers to keep them away from the items she wanted. There was also the tragic 2008 incident in which Walmart employee Jdimytai Damour was trampled by a stampede of Black Friday shoppers and died by asphyxiation.

Obviously not all shoppers would trample someone to save a few hundred dollars on a TV, but even among more level-headed shoppers there's a sense of urgency to get to a hot-ticket item before it sells out.

So what should you do if you're getting some tempting early access offers in your inbox?

Carefully evaluate each offer
The only way to know whether any of these Black Friday offers are worth considering is to look at them on a case-by-case basis, says Somogyi.

That's because while most major retailers offer customer loyalty programs, the terms and benefits vary considerably. Carefully evaluating each offer is important for a couple of reasons.

First, you need to make sure you aren't making a bigger commitment than you're ready for. For instance, the Target REDcard credit and debit cards are a much bigger commitment than MyLowe's “points” cards. “And it's usually a bad idea to open a new line of credit just to get early access to a Black Friday deal,” says Somogyi.

Second, you need to figure out if the loyalty program is beneficial for you. Maybe you rarely shop at that store and you know you'll never redeem your rewards. Maybe you have credit card debt and know that opening a store card would tempt you to overspend. There are a lot of reasons why a loyalty program might not be right for you. That's why it's important to carefully read the fine print.

So if you want in on early information and exclusive access, how do you know if one of these new Black Friday offers is worthwhile?

How to evaluate Black Friday offers tied to loyalty programs
If you're thinking about signing up for a store loyalty program to get the jump on Black Friday deals, here's what to consider.

  1. Is the offer only for a sneak peek? If so, “see if the ad has been leaked online,” says Somogyi. The Sears ad, for example, was already leaked on the web. “Most of the ads have been leaked by now,” he says.
  2. If the offer is for early or exclusive access to purchase items, is there anything you actually want? Again, look to Google. “Get as much information as you can about their Black Friday deals first,” says Somogyi. “Then, see if there's anything you even want to buy before entangling yourself in a loyalty program.”
  3. Are you already a longtime, loyal customer? “Signing up for a loyalty card as a knee-jerk reaction is not the best idea,” says Somogyi. But he says if you're already a longtime customer, it might be worth considering: “If you're loyal to a store, it might be a good idea to sign up and get rewards.”
  4. Can you handle the terms? Cards that just track purchases or offer points don't put you on the hook for anything too serious. But if the loyalty program is a credit card, you need to be honest with yourself about your financial habits. “If you already shop at Target a lot, and you know you can handle a REDcard, it might not be a bad idea,” says Somogyi. If you have a history of missing payments or carrying a balance, however, pass on the offer. After all, the REDcard credit card might offer 5 percent off purchases, but it also charges a whopping 22.9 percent APR.

Retailers are always looking for ways to hook a customer for the long-term, which is why Somogyi says we'll probably see more and more companies adopting this early-access-for-loyalty strategy.

So what do you think about this trend? If you're planning to shop Black Friday deals, would you consider signing up for a loyalty program for early access?


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