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How Holiday Shopping Happens in a Pandemic

Black Friday and Cyber Monday this year will be like never before. DealNews analyst Julie Ramhold joins us to talk about how to navigate sale season. Hosts Sandy Block and David Muhlbaum also talk about the Biden agenda and what to be thankful for in 2020

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David Muhlbaum: Like so many things in 2020, Black Friday and its associated discounts will be different this year. DealNews consumer analyst Julie Ramhold joins us to talk about how to find deals as we head into the holidays. We'll also talk about which of Joe Biden's campaign promises he will actually be able to achieve as president and dig deep to find things to be thankful for this year. That's all ahead on this episode of Your Money's Worth. Stick around.

David Muhlbaum: Welcome to Your Money's Worth. I'm kiplinger.com senior editor David Muhlbaum, joined by senior editor Sandy Block. Sandy, how are you?

Sandy Block: A little chilly but otherwise I'm good.

David Muhlbaum: Good. Well, last week we noted how the market was coming to grips with the prospect of a president elected Joe Biden. And now we're going to get into the nitty gritty of how much of his agenda he'll be able to accomplish and what that means to your money.

Sandy Block: Yeah, and there's still a lot of uncertainty about the Senate. That is, the next few months are going to be pretty wild, given that the exact number of senators who can vote in the narrowly divided Senate are going to move around a bit. One factor we saw this week was COVID, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley got it, and so won't be around for a key vote on a new and controversial appointee to the Federal Reserve. The other is that both of the Senate seats in Georgia went to a runoff and that election day isn't until January of next year. If both of those races go to the Democrats, they'll get control of the Senate. Oh, and Mark Kelly, the Arizona Democrat who defeated Martha McSally for John McCain's Senate seat, he gets to start in December rather than January with the rest of the Congress.

David Muhlbaum: All right then, but we were going to talk about Biden.

Sandy Block: Right. And that's the thing. There's no way Biden's going to be able to make the big changes he has planned with a GOP Congress, raising taxes on people making more than $400,000 a year. Raising the estate tax, no. Maybe a few targeted taxes related to infrastructure might get through.

David Muhlbaum: Okay, but his platform wasn't all increases. There were cuts proposed too. So how would those fare?

Sandy Block: Those have a better shot and the chances of tax cuts for lower and middle income Americans are somewhat better, especially if the economy's recovery continues to leave those people behind. Biden wants to expand the Child and Dependent Care Credit, and refundable child credit, both of which have bipartisan support. He also hopes to create a new tax credit for people who provide long-term care to their elderly relatives and to give a new tax break to first time home buyers and renters and Republicans like cutting taxes.

David Muhlbaum: Well, on the campaign trail, Biden made a lot of noises about student loan forgiveness, well, he wasn't the only candidate. This is a really hot issue now, and it looks like it's going to come to a head before he's even inaugurated. The forbearance program for student loan debt that went into effect at the start of the pandemic, that's about to run out at the end of the year. And my understanding is that program was really popular. There was only a small fraction of people who continue to pay down their loans.

Sandy Block: Yeah. Which is totally understandable because there was no interest accrued or any penalty for not paying your loans. So you could make an argument that you could save a little bit of money by paying them, but most people didn't. But once again we have to get Congress involved. Assuming they want to get involved, they could extend the forbearance program, essentially deferring payments that would otherwise come due on January 1st. They could go further and institute some actual debt forgiveness, which is the proposal Biden and others were suggesting. Congressional Democrats have a proposal for $10,000 of forgiveness, that seems like the number Biden is tying himself to if Congress fails to pass that, there's also a chance that the Biden administration could try and do that by executive order. There's a lot of back and forth about whether they could, but it's an interesting thought.

David Muhlbaum: Yeah, but it would be messy, politically, administratively, all that, especially if they had to go back and you had this period between the inauguration and January 1st. Good Lord. So,I know plenty of people owe well more than $10,000 in student debt, but here's a hypothetical: Let's say I owe about that much. And let's say I was one of that small fraction of people, I think it's about 22% who continued to pay down their debt, who continued to make payments during the forbearance this year. Now, if there's a $10,000 forgiveness, well, those payments I made, was I just throwing my money away?

Sandy Block: That's one of the reasons this is such a knotty issue because it's... and knotty as in K-N-O-T-T-Y not naughty, but because it's not just those people, it's anybody who really worked, maybe drained their savings or worked over time to pay off their debt. And maybe they're debt free and made very big sacrifices to get there. And now all these other kids are getting $10,000 right off the top. That's one of the things you could see people arguing about, other is that it's not progressive. And that if everybody gets $10,000 off, maybe some families that just took out the loan because they wanted greater cashflow while their kid was in college, they get a $10,000 break too. I can see all kinds of problems there.

David Muhlbaum: Right. And if the number goes up, I've heard $50,000 thrown out. There is an argument that it's less progressive because the people who have that amount of debt, at least some of them, in theory, in part, they should be the ones best prepared to pay it off because they got that degree to let them be a higher earner and retire that debt. Well, okay. Okay. We're getting a little off topic, but...

Sandy Block: We could do this all day. I haven't even brought up moral hazard.

David Muhlbaum:Oh God, yes. Warning: Moral hazard ahead! After the break, we'll be talking to a retailing expert about holiday shopping in this most curious of years.

David Muhlbaum:

For our main segment today, we're joined by Julie Ramhold, an analyst for DealNews. We had her on last year around this time, to talk about Black Friday and finding good deals during holiday shopping. She's back, but as often seems to be the case, things are different this year. Welcome, Julie.

Julie Ramhold: Thank you for having me. It's great to be back.

David Muhlbaum: So let's jump right in. Is there still going to be a Black Friday in the middle of a pandemic?

Julie Ramhold: Absolutely. It just looks very different this year.

David Muhlbaum: How?

Julie Ramhold: So the short answer is that it's lasting longer. The store's rolled out all their deals early or most of them did, a lot of the big retailers did anyway. They rolled out their deals early, they're running it for the whole month of November and the deals are lasting longer too, but we're also seeing a bigger push for them to be online only. So the really good deals, the ones that you expect to be in store only doorbusters are not seeing those this year. We're seeing them online instead. And most stores have been rolling these deals out little by little until, next week is supposed to be the big event with all their best ones.

David Muhlbaum:Next week being?

Julie Ramhold: Next week being Black Friday.

David Muhlbaum: Being Black Friday. Okay. Right. What about the famous Monday after? Have we already begun Cyber Monday?

Julie Ramhold: I guess it depends on how you look at it. So there's still going to be Cyber Monday deals. The retailers aren't ignoring it this year or anything like that, but with a bigger push to shop online, it just feels like a Cyber holiday to me in general. So it'll still be there. There will still be deals, but all of November feels like Cyber holiday shopping to me. So I'm just like, the deals are there. Go ahead and go shop.

Sandy Block: So, Julie, given all that, what are some specific things that people can and should shop for now if they want to get a good price?

Sandy Block: Wow.

David Muhlbaum: It's nice that it's flat screens because that gives me a flashback to the Black Fridays of old, when everyone would line up and then trample each other in a mad rush to get a cheap flat screen, that sort of thing.

Julie Ramhold: Isn't it just baffling? We used to see that, people just lining up, rushing the doors to get in, to get these TVs that were super cheap by those standards. And now, every year we see a 32 inch TV for $90.

Sandy Block: Right. I think at some point they're just going to start giving out TVs, Julie, because they do seem to get cheaper all the time.

Julie Ramhold: Sure. Why not? Buy one, maybe you get another.

Sandy Block:

But let's look at the flip side, what things are better not bought now, what are some deals that aren't really deals?

Julie Ramhold: One of the big things we're seeing in the ads, especially now that they're rolling out on a more consistent basis is that video game consoles are just not on sale this year. So it's to be expected, the Xbox Series X just came out on the 10th and then the PlayStation 5 came out two days later on the 12th. So those are really new. Obviously it's too soon to expect discounts on those, but even for the Nintendo Switch and the Nintendo Switch Lite, which have been out for at least a year now, the Nintendo Switch has been out longer obviously, but the Switch Lite came out last year. The prices we're seeing at list prices, even if there's a bundle and we are seeing some bundles for the Nintendo Switch that include Mario Kart 8, which is a port. So it's not even a specifically a Switch game, it was ported over.

Julie Ramhold: Even those are running for list price. So it's very weird to see stuff that we totally thought we were going to see discounts on. And it's like, no, they're in really high demand. We ran into issues earlier this year with a Nintendo Switch and availability there. And I think it's gotten better, but when it comes to things like the new X-Box and the new PlayStation, I'm basically like, if you want to go ahead and spend the money and you can get your hands on one, just go ahead and do it.

Sandy Block: Just do it. Yeah.

Julie Ramhold: There's not going to be any discounts. And if you really want that this year, it's going to sell out. I think stores are already having some trouble keeping them in stock because they didn't have a ton of stock to begin with. Although, some of them are moving to make sure that their consumers only shop them online. So that should help with stock a little bit.

David Muhlbaum: Exploring that dynamic a little further: 10 years ago, I might've known the answer to the question I'm going to ask you, but now I don't. So, what are the hot toys this holiday season and how can desperate parents find them since driving to every mall within a hundred miles seems less appealing now?

Julie Ramhold: So, it's really interesting to me. I started at DealNews writing for the blog back in 2016. And I remember the hottest toy that year was the Hatchimals. And I couldn't figure out why, because it's this egg that hatches into this thing, and then you have what's essentially a Furby.

David Muhlbaum:Right. With a Tamagotchi heart.

Julie Ramhold: Exactly. And they were going for a reasonable price. But for some reason it was just the thing to have that year. So all of a sudden they start selling out like crazy. And then when you do see them, they're marked up to this huge degree. And the year after that, it was the little fingerlings toys. And that was even more bizarre because those things are $15 regular price anyway. So to see them suddenly selling out and then being resold on eBay and stuff like that at a huge markup, I just couldn't wrap my head around it. So the thing is that we haven't seen that hype, I guess, since those two things. So every year, Lego sets are really big, Mattel stuff like Barbie sets are really big. But this year, what we're looking at is stuff anything having to do with The Mandalorian, but particularly if it has to do with The Child, AKA Baby Yoda. We expect all that to be crazy.

Sandy Block: Baby Yoda.

Julie Ramhold: Yeah. Exactly. It's so cute. How could you not want it?

David Muhlbaum: It's so fun to say. I don't even watch the show and I'm aware of it.

Julie Ramhold: But the big question this year is, how are you going to get your hands on these things? I am going to go with, if you can order it early and order it online, definitely do it. Stuff like that is going to sell out so quickly, but also try to use in-store pickup.

Sandy Block: That makes sense. The hot toy is always scarce, that's why it's hot. So someone gets hero points for getting their kid the last one that was available.

David Muhlbaum: Yeah. That's a core part of the foundational narrative of the holiday that my family celebrates this time of year.

Sandy Block: What are you talking about?

David Muhlbaum: Festivus! Seinfeld! Remember Frank Constanza had a revelation, as he fought a fellow shopper for the last doll on the shelves ahead of Christmas. "As I rained blows upon him, I realized there had to be another way. And out of that a new holiday was born, a Festivus for the rest of us!" The aluminum pole, the airing of grievances, the feats of strength. You should totally come over, Sandy.

Sandy Block: Oh yeah. You bet.

Julie Ramhold: One of my aunts actually made a Festivus pole for her husband one year and unveiled it at the huge family Christmas gathering and it was hilarious. We all took pictures. It was so great. And now-

David Muhlbaum: That's awesome. I make a new one every year. Sorry, go ahead.

Julie Ramhold: Oh, no. I was just going to say now, we don't know exactly what happened to it. They've moved since then. So they're like, it's in storage somewhere. I don't know.

David Muhlbaum: It's in the crawl space.

Julie Ramhold: Hopefully.

Sandy Block: But what I really wanted to ask Julie before we got off on this Festivus tangent and our list of grievances is that scarcity isn't just for kids' toys, right? Are a lot of these hot deals going to go fast?

Julie Ramhold: Traditionally, yeah, they do. Part of the issue with a traditional Black Friday and holiday shopping sale is that we see these deals that are touted as limited time only. You got to get there at 5:00 a.m. and it's only good until seven or something like that. So you really try to bring in the shoppers with that language. And this year, that's not really the case, we're seeing these deals last a little bit longer. Walmart has been running its events throughout the month and basically having... They kick off online on a Wednesday and then a few days later they'll move to in store. So you have more time to get them, but that doesn't mean that you should wait, because these are good deals. They're still crashing sites in some cases with people trying to snag them online so they don't have to go in store. So a good deal is hard to beat no matter what time of year. And if you think it's going to sell out, you need to know when it goes live so that you can go ahead and grab it before it does.

David Muhlbaum: And one of the ways to know it goes live is to just go ahead and give up an email address to go ahead and get on those lists. I maintain a separate email address just for that sort of thing.

Julie Ramhold: Oh, that's a good idea. I can cut way down on my inbox-

Sandy Block: Oh, you get so much stuff, right?

David Muhlbaum: Right. This is just the shopping email and it's saved for all the lists. And when I want to find something out, I go there. Because there really is value to that. There really are promotions that are exclusive to those people who have coughed up their email address. Some businesses have essentially set up their whole structure around that.

David Muhlbaum: So I want to ask, but let me make clear. I'm asking for a friend:, What's going to happen to a certain type of shopper, the guy who waits until the absolute last minute to knock everything out in two or three hours of retail glory? I take it that strategy is going to be sorely tested this year.

Julie Ramhold: I would say one, it depends on when you're going. If you're like, I can do all of this on Black Friday and be good. I would say don't risk it. A lot of the stores, even for their absolute Black Friday sales are starting them early. And the closer we get to December and to the holidays in general, you're going to run into risk of things selling out. And also we have shipping delays this year. So if you think you can shop online and be like, Oh, it'll be fine. No, we're expecting major shipping delays this year to the point where we're advising people. If you're shipping a gift, it's best to try to buy it online and have it sent directly to your recipient rather than having it sent to you first. And if you think that it's going to be late, if there's even the slightest chance that it could be late, make a backup plan, take a picture of the receipt or get a greeting card to be like, this is what you're getting eventually.

David Muhlbaum: Here's the PDF of my order.

Julie Ramhold: Exactly.

Sandy Block: So Julie, if I don't want to have to take a picture. What would you recommend I should actually ship my things by if I want them to get to my recipient before, say December 25th and I don't want to send them a photo of the gift that they think they're going to get?

Julie Ramhold: So it's going to depend on the retailer. We're still waiting to see what they lay out for their shipping deadlines this year. Ordinarily, we see this nice lead up to the holidays with, oh, "December 19th. You can still get it in time for Christmas" and things like that. And there's already at least one retailer saying that December 14th is the last day they're going to guarantee that if you order then you should have it by Christmas.

David Muhlbaum: Right. I was thinking they might not even make that promise at all.

Julie Ramhold: That's honestly what I'm expecting. I'm expecting because they've been warning about these shipping delays for so long. When Prime Day rolled around in October this year, Amazon already had its holiday language up on the site and they were already saying like, there's going to be shipping delays. So you should shop now. And that's just the whole narrative that all the retailers have been picking up.

David Muhlbaum: Right. So no complaining about the decorations being up in the stores in October, because there's a reason for that.

Julie Ramhold: Exactly, this year. It makes total sense.

David Muhlbaum: Well, thank you for your guidance for people out there. Get an early start, Black Friday is now. We are already living it. And thanks very much for joining us, Julie.

Sandy Block: Thanks, Julie.

Julie Ramhold: Thank you so much for having me.

David Muhlbaum:

When we return we'll remember that it's time for Thanksgiving. The holiday and the act -- neither were particularly easy this year, but they're still important.

David Muhlbaum: So Sandy, you know what cynical Dave finds really, really easy? You can guess from my frequent use of the phrase, "our blessed year 2020."

Sandy Block: Yeah. Beating up on this year. Like that's original.

David Muhlbaum: Yeah. Yeah. The dumpster fire, stick a fork in it. No, it's low hanging fruit. You're right. Everybody dumps on 2020; it's easy. Conversely, what's really hard is finding things to be thankful for this year, but it's a good exercise. Maybe even more important than ever. And in fact, I can start with one thing I'm thankful for. I'm thankful I did not have to come up with a list of things to be thankful for. 

David Muhlbaum: This is actually a Kiplinger holiday tradition of sorts that dates back to one of my first bosses here, Doug Harbrecht. One of the good guys, who has a deeply optimistic streak in him and once a year, he'd go through our output here at Kiplinger and around Thanksgiving put together a list of things to be thankful for. Robert Long, the general manager of kiplinger.com has taken over this task.

Sandy Block: Do you think Robert is an optimist too?

David Muhlbaum: I think he can rise to the occasion.

Sandy Block: All right. Well, what's your favorite off his list?

David Muhlbaum: Well, I'd say all of them because he's my boss, but we don't have time to get to them all. You can go to kiplinger.com and see things to be thankful for 2020 in its entirety. My favorite has got to be the huge progress we've seen in the last few weeks toward developing an effective COVID-19 vaccine. Yes, of course there's a lot of work still to be done, but we've got two big drug makers whose candidates are showing 95% effectiveness and some other drug makers working as well. So, come on science!

Sandy Block: Well, I'd like to raise a lonely Thanksgiving glass to the stock market volatility and all. The old bull market finally kicked it in March. But the bear market that followed, shaving off 34% of the S&P, was gone before you even knew it was there. And here it's almost Thanksgiving week and investors are sitting on a return, including dividends, of 61% from the low and 12% for the year. Not shabby for a country with monumental public health and economic challenges. This is a forward-looking market, and it sees better days ahead.

David Muhlbaum: I'm biting my cynical tongue so hard right now.

Sandy Block: Well, you go right ahead. Now, because I'm the tax person, I'm also going to mention one about taxes, which is not something people usually are thankful for, but the IRS has made a significant change for those people who like to go back and make sure they got every break. I'm talking here about amending a return, and that has gotten significantly easier. Starting with the 2019 tax year, you can file Form 1040-X, the document used to amend tax returns electronically. In the past, you had to submit the form by mail, which was a big hassle and took time. You could use tax software to fill out the form, but you still had to print it out and put a stamp on it and mail it in. You don't have to do that anymore.

David Muhlbaum: Having been down the amendment path more than once, I do appreciate that.

Sandy Block: It may seem like a small thing, but if you have to amend your return, good for you. It is a lot better.

David Muhlbaum: Yeah. Well, if I could pick out some closeout music right now, I think it would be Monty Python's "Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life."

Sandy Block: Love that, but you can't; we'd probably have to pay someone, so don't even whistle it.

David Muhlbaum: Yes, I will. I hope you all can find something of your own to be thankful for this year. You might have to dig a bit, but it's there. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone.

David Muhlbaum: And that will just about do it for this episode of Your Money's Worth. I hope you enjoyed it, and I hope you'll sign up for more, if you haven't already, wherever you get your podcasts. And when you do, please give us a rating and review. We've mentioned some links and content in our show to see them and for more great Kiplinger content on the topics we discussed, visit kiplinger.com/podcast. You can get full transcripts there as well. And if you're still here, because what you really want to do is give us a piece of your mind. You can stay connected with Kiplinger on Twitter, Facebook, or by emailing us at podcast@kiplinger.com. Thanks for listening.

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