Dan Gutierrez arrives at the Sears in Del Amo Fashion Center about 6 a.m. and immediately begins walking the aisles.
The store manager is searching for what he calls "opportunities," ways to push more product onto the floor and clues about what is selling -- so he can sell more of it.
On this day, he notices that a stack of Hewlett-Packard laptops and printers that's normally chest high is shrinking. And he needs to get another 13-inch Disney brand TV set on the floor. And the pile of Sony CD/DVD players is dwindling.
"I have to make a mental note; we need more stock on this," Gutierrez said. "You get to find your dogs too: what isn't selling."
Along with retailers nationwide, Gutierrez's Sears store in Torrance is getting set for Friday, the official launch of the holiday shopping season. It's known as "Black Friday" in the industry because the day after Thanksgiving traditionally was the point in the year that retailers shifted from the "red" into the "black."
Gutierrez calls it "Showtime."
"It's only the best day of the year," he said, continuing his rounds. "This is what you train for. This is what you live for."
In one of America's weirder consumer rituals, die-hard shoppers will haul themselves out of bed Friday -- often before daybreak -- to fight for a parking place, elbow their way through crowds and plant themselves in long lines.
Although it's a key day for retailers, it's not necessarily a barometer of how the overall season will unfold. Last year, sales jumped a hearty 12.4% on the day after Thanksgiving, boosting merchants' hopes. But they were soon dashed.
"It fell off pretty dramatically after that," said Jason Milch, spokesman for ShopperTrak, a Chicago firm that monitors retail sales.
Ultimately, the 2002 holiday season was a miserable time for many retailers, with sales rising just 2.2% during the November-December period, the slowest growth in a decade. Sales at stores open at least a year, a key indicator of a company's health, increased only 1% last December, the slimmest increase in 30 years.
Most retail experts seem more optimistic about this year's prospects. The National Retail Federation, the industry's largest trade group, is projecting a 5.7% sales increase, or $217.4 billion in sales, citing recent positive indicators such as a government report this week that showed the economy grew 8.2% in the third quarter, the heftiest expansion since 1984.
But not all projections are upbeat.
A Conference Board survey of 5,000 households this month found that Americans were planning to spend an average of $455 on gifts during the holiday season, down from $483 in 2002. That would mean a 5% drop in sales compared with last year. Those queried in the Pacific region, which includes California, were among the most frugal, with plans to spend $409.
On the other hand, people often spend more than expected. "Consumers are cautious in making their budgets," said Lynn Franco, the New York-based group's research director, "but they do tend to exceed it."
Linda James of Fresno can hardly wait to throw herself into the fray. In what has become an annual ritual, the workers' compensation adjuster rises at 4:30 a.m. on the day after Thanksgiving. Within an hour, she's "ready to rock and roll," armed with a mug of coffee and a bargain-hunting game plan.
"It's worth it, trust me, it's worth it," said James, 53, who will be accompanied by her two daughters and one daughter's mother-in-law. Typically, they head first for Toys R Us and then hurry on to Michaels, Mervyn's and Target.
They'll have plenty of company. A survey released by the International Council of Shopping Centers on Tuesday found that 34% of those queried were planning to start their holiday shopping this weekend.
Whatever its fiscal importance -- and it varies year to year -- the Friday after Thanksgiving is "a very symbolic day," said Tom Holliday, an advertising and marketing expert for the retail federation. "Retailers are going to be out there competing with their best foot forward, really showing their cards."
One way they do that is by promoting hot items at slashed prices and "door buster" sales intended to get shoppers into stores early.
Of course, many retailers encourage people to begin shopping earlier. Last Friday, Macy's advertised a "get-ready sale" with markdowns up to 75%; Sears promoted a "great 3-day sale," slashing prices in half; and Robinsons-May trumpeted its "lowest prices of the season." Sporting goods chain Sportmart is taking 25% off any single item today for those who plan to start their Christmas shopping before Thanksgiving is over.
Many retailers keep their best deals under wraps until today so competitors can't promote the same products at even lower prices.
Elva Villalobos is waiting to plan her shopping day until she's pored over today's newspaper ads.
"After my turkey dinner, that's my ritual. I'll sit down with my cup of coffee and go through the paper," said the 28-year-old stay-at-home mom, who lives in Huntington Beach. "I pretty much plan my shopping day from that."
The Sears insert may be one of the many that she'll flip through. Sears, Roebuck & Co.'s Thanksgiving weekend ads will appear today, promoting what the Illinois-based retailer thinks -- or hopes, at least -- will be this year's big sellers, including a Disney brand DVD player for $249.99, an American Idol CD karaoke player for $99.99 and the Spring Zing Barbie for $2.99.
The Torrance store has twice as many plasma TVs on display this year as last, Gutierrez said, anticipating that a dramatic drop in the price will lure customers. Still, they're not cheap -- $2,000 to $9,000.
As is typically the case with retailers, key items are strategically placed in hopes the shopper will make that impulse buy. For example, Sears has set up displays of snowman soap dispensers, holiday towels and Christmas tree pillows at the foot of its busiest escalator, Gutierrez said.
"We want to get quick bang for our buck on this Christmas merchandise," he said. "And it does pretty well if you put it in front of them."
The "toy land" department gets downright "crazy" over the holidays, Gutierrez said. That would be "toy land" for men, also known as the tool department, home to the $119.99 tool cart and gizmos that will become a $99.99 "door buster" special from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Friday.
The Sears in Torrance is much fuller than usual, with walls of fluffy slippers, racks of striped-toe socks and stacks of sweaters festooned with reindeer. Normally roomy aisles are filled with tables of stuffed animals, Cat in the Hat blankets and gift kits of lotion and shampoo at 50% off.
Additional racks have been hauled in so more clothes can be displayed. Stacks of backup product are crammed under tables, so supplies can be quickly replenished.
"It's all about capacity," Gutierrez said. "How can I get more onto the floor and still not confuse the customer?"