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Target and other retailers brace for holiday shopping onslaught

Target and other retailers brace for holiday shopping onslaught
Workers gather for a meeting in preparation for Black Friday at a Target store in Eagle Rock. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

At the Target store in Eagle Rock, workers are sprinting to get ready for the retail world's equivalent of the Super Bowl: Black Friday.

The store will throw open its doors on Thanksgiving at 6 p.m. to welcome crowds of shoppers eager to score deals after stuffing themselves with turkey and pie.

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"It's a huge day for us," store manager Gilbert Diaz said of the Thursday-into-Friday shopathon. "It's probably the best time of the year."

In recent weeks, consumers have been sending mixed signals about how spendy they're feeling for the holidays.

Consumer confidence rose sluggishly in November, according to the University of Michigan's consumer sentiment index, released Wednesday. The increase to 91.3 from 90 the month before was less than economists had forecast and down from the preliminary estimate of 93.1 earlier in the month.

Consumer spending managed only a modest 0.1% increase in October, the second straight month of weakness, even though personal income jumped 0.4%, the Commerce Department reported Wednesday.

That means people are saving rather than buying, economists said, with the silver lining being that they might be saving to spend on presents and holiday fripperies. Consumer spending isn't a frivolous measurement because it accounts for about two-thirds of U.S. economic activity.

Macy's and Nordstrom said this month that slow shopper traffic led to disappointing third-quarter financial results and higher inventory levels. Retail sales in October edged up only slightly after two flat months, Commerce Department data show.

Target and other merchants need to do well on Black Friday, which traditionally kicks off the crucial holiday shopping season. Retailers can earn up to 40% of their annual revenue during the last few months of the year.

The National Retail Federation trade group forecasts that sales during November and December will climb 3.7% to $630.5 billion, slightly below the 4.1% growth of 2014.

To handle that kind of festive consumerism requires lots of planning at Target and retailers across the nation.

On Tuesday a little past 10 a.m., Diaz gathered about two dozen employees for a pep talk around the glittery Christmas tree displays.

"Good morning!" he boomed out cheerfully as workers in red shirts clapped. "We have two days to go!"

Diaz ran through a checklist of Black Friday-related items: maps that will be provided to shoppers, special discounts in the days leading up to Thanksgiving and a raffle for Christmas trees for employees who aren't late this week.

"It's probably one of our biggest weeks and weekends," he said. "Tell all your friends to be at work."

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Over the span of Thanksgiving and Friday, Target stores are open for 30 hours straight. That requires almost all of the Eagle Rock location's nearly 400 employees to rotate through for a tour of duty — "double or triple" the staff at any one time compared with a normal day, Diaz said.

Some will be manning the cash registers, which will all be open to ring up purchases. Others will be on alert to make sure that nothing gets stolen in the chaos.

Still others — wearing shirts that say "Merry Christmas. May your line be quick" — will greet queuing shoppers and hand them maps and power bars as they wait for the store to open.

Along with extra security staff, Target also will get some extra help from LAPD officers to manage the lines outside. Snacks in the break room will keep the troops fueled throughout the long night.

Target said hourly employees earn time-and-a-half on Thanksgiving and could be eligible for additional pay for certain shifts Thursday and Friday.

On Wednesday night, hordes of employees set up special displays around the two-floor Target with the Black Friday products on offer, including big-screen TVs, Apple gadgets and toys. Those categories tend to sell briskly during the shopping frenzy.

Last week, Target reported a decent third quarter. Net income was $549 million, up 56% compared with the same period a year earlier, when the retailer was still dealing with aftershocks from a huge data breach during the 2013 holiday season. Sales climbed 2.1% to $17.6 billion.

Like all chains, the Minneapolis retailer is facing fierce competition from e-commerce rivals such as Amazon.com.

Target's e-commerce sales rose nearly 20% in the third quarter, but that compares with 30% growth in the previous quarter. Amazon, by contrast, reported a surprising profit of $79 million in its third quarter, while sales jumped 23% to $25.4 billion.

"It's the time factor," said Jackie Fernandez, a retail partner at Deloitte & Touche. "You can get the same offerings online, and discounts and free shipping too."

Despite the lure of online shopping, hundreds of shoppers are expected to line up outside the Eagle Rock Target starting early Thanksgiving afternoon, manager Diaz said.

And as soon as this weekend is over, planning for next year's Black Friday will begin.

"Right after last year, that Monday, I said 'What did we learn?'" Diaz said.

"When I stop to think about it," he added with a laugh, "I don't know how I do it."

Twitter: @ByShanLi

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