When Black Friday Is Your Super Bowl

How the editor of The Strategist plans for the biggest online shopping event of the year

A gif showing athletes jumping and running to get sale labels.
Tyler Comrie / The Atlantic; Getty

After the turkey comes the pumpkin pie; after the pumpkin pie, the sales.

Black Friday is America’s biggest shopping day, with some consumers lining up in the wee hours of the morning to get first grabs at the discounts. But an equally chaotic celebration takes place online. To help readers make sense of this universe of discounts, editorial shopping websites such as The Strategist and Wirecutter—owned by New York magazine and The New York Times, respectively—cover the festivities like they do any other major news event, publishing guides to the best sales.

Maxine Builder is the editor of The Strategist, where she has worked for five years. Builder told me she believes that in recent years, the competition among retailers has become fiercer—and more people are covering them. We caught up by phone to discuss how The Strategist’s team monitors the deluge each year.

Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Caroline Mimbs Nyce: Is this your Super Bowl?

Maxine Builder: I guess you could say Black Friday is our Super Bowl. It’s definitely a time when we have all hands on deck. But the reality is that we are covering sales all year long. We have a full-time deals editor whose job is basically to look for deals.

Nyce: When do you start planning for it?

Builder: We start planning for it a few months out. And at this point—this is my fifth year at The Strategist—we have a baseline sales-coverage strategy that we go back to every sales event, be that Prime Day or Black Friday or anything.

What we’ll often do is we’ll look back at the previous year’s sales coverage and look back at what happened last Black Friday, and take a look at what resonated with our readers and what didn’t—and do more of what was working, and also think about what is happening right now.

Nyce: When you’re actually looking through the deals, is any of that automated? Are you using spreadsheets?

Builder: We’re really lucky. We have a really great business-development and e-commerce team that is really helpful in doing data analysis and helping us find things that we’ve written about before that might be on sale—taking spreadsheets from merchants and matching them up with our own archives. But at the end of the day, it’s pretty manual. It comes down to our writers and editors going through and finding the good deals. It’s going to the website, seeing what’s on sale, and doing the digging through the sales bin so our readers don’t have to. Our whole approach is having a human curating the internet, not just an algorithm.

Nyce: Are there shifts for Black Friday? Do you pass the baton, or is it just, like you said, all hands on deck?

Builder: It’s pretty much all hands on deck. We divide it up among all of our writers and editors. We do have a couple of staffers based in the U.K. who will be logging on as early as 4 a.m. eastern time, which is 9 a.m. their time. So they’re doing our early-morning shift on Black Friday, which has been really great and super helpful. They’ll be doing sort of the first pass to make sure that the deals we think are going live have actually gone live, and that our posts that are running live are as accurate as possible. And then our U.S.-based team logs on and starts digging.

Nyce: And when do the best deals usually go live?

Builder: It depends. And one thing I think we’ve seen this year is that the deals have started coming out a lot earlier. You and I are talking on Tuesday, and already, a lot of sales have gone live. Brooklinen, Parachute, Girlfriend Collective, Outdoor Voices, and Dermstore—all of those are brands that we’ve written about before on The Strategist and whose sales have launched in the last couple of days.

Nyce: So it’s not typical for it to start on a Tuesday?

Builder: We’ve definitely seen early Black Friday deals in the past. But I think this whole week, the sales calendars and promotions have been starting a little bit earlier than what we’ve seen in previous years.

Nyce: Why do you think that is?

Builder: I think part of the reason it’s starting earlier is just that the space has gotten super competitive. And one other thing we’ve been seeing too is just that a lot of retailers and brands have been reacting with a lot more aggressive price matching.

Nyce: Do you all do affiliate linking? [Affiliate linking is when a magazine—or a blogger or an influencer—uses a special link that earns them a commission from the merchant when a reader clicks it or buys the product. The Atlantic uses affiliate links in its books coverage.]

Builder: We do.

Nyce: How do you think about the ethics there?

Builder: Our main thing is that everything we write about is independently selected by our writers and editors. And the way I think about it is that we’re picking the things we’re excited about. And then it’s on the business team to optimize those links.

Nyce: What’s something you didn’t know about e-commerce until you did this?

Builder: This is probably really naive, but how much planning goes into these sales events and how early we get messaging from the brands that these sales are happening. As a kid, you hear about Black Friday, and it sounds like a free-for-all. When you actually are dealing with people in the merchandising and all that, there is a lot of thought put into it—what’s being marked down and how much it’s being discounted.

The other thing that’s been surprising to me, especially this year—looking at the deals that are coming in—is that they’re actually quite good. Even I have been swayed to buy some things. I try to be very judicious about what I buy, because I think about shopping all the time—and I think if I did not have some self-restraint, I would be in a lot of trouble.