Retailers aim for a week of Black Fridays
Call it Gray Friday.
Black Friday, the traditional kickoff to the holiday shopping season, has lost a bit of its luster as hungry retailers try to stretch the one-day shopping bacchanal on the day after Thanksgiving into a weeklong bonanza.
Big chains including Sears and Toys R Us have joined Wal-Mart and Kmart in offering Thanksgiving Day hours. Others have already begun hawking massive discounts and pushing online deals. And to keep the party going past Friday, many retailers will offer fresh discounts Saturday and Sunday.
There’s a lot riding on the outcome. Retailers hope an improving economy will bring the biggest holiday receipts in four years -- and if they succeed, it could help set off a chain of events that could accelerate the country’s slow recovery, said economist Esmael Adibi of Chapman University.
“If the retail sector is healthy, that will eventually lead down the road to expansions, and expansions lead to hiring,” he said. “Additional hiring generates more income, and then that income in turn will be spent. It’s a multiplier effect.”
Wall Street was feeling optimistic about the retail industry as it headed into the all-important Thanksgiving weekend. Continuing a recent run-up, investors pushed an index of 90 retail stocks to the highest level in more than three years Wednesday, with Guess shares gaining 11% and shares of Amazon.com, Tiffany & Co. and Big 5 each rising more than 5%.
Consumer spending at the nation’s retailers, although not robust, has been generally healthy all year. So economists are predicting the best holiday season since 2006 (before the recession) and are estimating a year-over-year retail sales increase of 2.3% to 3.5%.
Despite the earlier-than-ever holiday deals this year, habitual Black Friday shoppers say they’ll still be out in force for the annual shopping extravaganza.
Many have been gearing up for days, drafting store layout maps and lists of things to buy, and plan to wake up in the middle of the night -- or not sleep at all -- so they can be the first to hit the malls. Last year 79 million Americans shopped on Black Friday, which is said to be so named because it was historically the day when huge revenue would push retailers into the black.
“People cutting in line, people trying to start fights, people pushing in line as they start going inside -- I don’t know, I like it,” said Sam Sanders, 33, of Ontario, who has shopped on Black Friday for the last eight years. “Rushing in to get the product before it sells out -- that’s like the best part.”
With shoppers indicating that they’re willing to spend again, albeit cautiously, retailers have added more holiday deals and spread the usual 24-hour Black Friday discounts over several days, hoping to one-up rivals and seize market share.
“It’s our most intense promotional calendar yet. We’ve really gone on the offensive this year,” said Mike Boylson, chief marketing officer at JCPenney, which will have more than 300 Black Friday “door-buster” specials and will offer online-only deals on Thanksgiving. “We know there’s a lot of very hungry competitors that are going to do just about anything to get business.”
For the first time, Toys R Us stores will open at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving, with 25% more door-busters than last year, and Sears will be open Thanksgiving Day.
To kick off Black Friday, most Wal-Mart stores will host midnight events, handing out treats such as breakfast bars and chocolate to help keep overnight shoppers energized; the discounter will have a fresh batch of deals Saturday. Target will open at 4 a.m., an hour earlier than last year, and is offering more door-buster deals than ever before; Kohl’s is touting its earliest-ever opening, at 3 a.m.
Locally, Citadel Outlets will again be open at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving. Two hours later, shopping centers including the Shops at Montebello and Lakewood Center will open for midnight-madness events, their earliest-ever openings. At Ontario Mills, which also opens at midnight, the mall will use social networking for the first time on Black Friday to hype last-minute deals.
Retailers said the motivation for throwing their doors open earlier and rolling out more deals was the notion that although many Americans are no longer pinching pennies, they’re still price-conscious and looking for bargains. Lower-income Americans, especially, are still struggling.
“Yes we’re being aggressive this year, much more so than last year,” said Steve Nave, senior vice president and general manager of Walmart.com. “I think everyone is cautiously optimistic that things are turning around in the economy, but the Wal-Mart customer is still especially strapped right now.”
Every year Delene Mitchell, 42, and her friends hit the stores on Black Friday right after finishing the last of their pumpkin pie.
“We just sit up, drink some wine and go shopping,” she said of her Thanksgiving ritual. “We don’t go to bed.”
She’ll continue the tradition this week, but after being unemployed for most of the year, the Burbank resident is looking for more than just a good time.
“Years ago, I loved Black Friday because it gets me into the holiday spirit,” she said. “But now I need the deals. I need to save money.”
The nation’s high unemployment rate will still put a damper on consumer spending, but with the worst of the economic troubles probably over, many people could give in to pent-up demand and frugal fatigue, economist Adibi said.
“Those who are employed say, ‘The recession ended, I survived, I have my job and things are not going to get worse,’ ” he said. “All of this positive news is giving relief to consumers and they’re coming out and shopping.”
Retail and mall executives said they’ve seen signs that consumers are feeling more confident, including better sales of aspirational items such as luxury goods and jewelry and an increased number of shoppers buying for themselves -- trends that are expected to continue this Christmas.
“People are moving a little more from those ‘need’ items to things that are a little more discretionary,” said Traci Weber, senior vice president of marketing at mall operator Macerich, which owns centers including Santa Monica Place and Westside Pavilion. “We want to see this continued momentum.”
More holiday specials will also be moving online this year to meet demand as consumers increasingly turn to their laptops and smart phones to shop.
Wal-Mart said it would triple its number of online-only deals on Thanksgiving Day compared with last year and announced that it would offer free shipping on about 60,000 holiday items through Dec. 20. Amazon.com rolled out its electronics Black Friday deals in October, weeks earlier than usual, and has been featuring a deal of the day and limited-time “Lightning Deals” all week.
The earlier opening times have put pressure on retailers to follow suit, even if it means staffing stores on Thanksgiving Day -- once considered off-limits so employees could spend the holiday with their families.
JCPenney opted to keep its official Black Friday opening time at 4 a.m. despite moves by many of its competitors to open earlier.
“Once you open early, you might get some business, but the next year you’re up against that, so you have to open at least as early,” Boylson said. “At some point, you’ve got to draw the line.”
But he acknowledged that the Black Friday start time was something executives at the department store chain were always revisiting. He said the retailer wouldn’t give in “unless our hand is forced ... and it might be after this year.”