The nation’s retailers ushered in the start of the holiday season Friday with expanded hours, generous discounts and free money in the form of gift cards.
In a slowing but still steady economy, retailers like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. were increasing the sales pitch to shoppers, hoping to grab customer dollars. A growing number of stores and malls threw open their doors at midnight to jump-start the season, and CompUSA Inc. and BJ’s Wholesale Club Inc. even opened on Thanksgiving for the first time to grab customer dollars before the competition does.
Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, which promised its most aggressive price strategy ever this holiday season, is using heavily discounted flat-screen TVs like Viore 42-inch plasma TVs for $988 to attract shoppers to its doors for its 5 a.m. opening on Black Friday, so named because it was traditionally when the surge of shopping made stores profitable.
Meanwhile, Sears Holdings Corp.’s Sears, Roebuck and Co., which opened at 5 a.m. Friday, one hour earlier than a year ago, will be giving out $10 reward cards for the first 200 shoppers that show up to the stores. Other early bird specials include Protron 37-inch LCD HDTVs for $949.99 and 50 percent discounts on many toys. At Sears Holdings’ Kmart stores, shoppers will find 50 percent discounts on men’s and women’s outerwear as part of its early morning doorbusters.
“Retailers are doing more to get consumers into the stores earlier this year,” said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America’s Research Group, based in Charleston, S.C.
Determined to buy a flat-screen plasma TV, Laurie Field and her father were first in line at a Best Buy Co. store in Little Rock, Ark., 16 hours before the doors opened.
“My mom is at home, taking a nap. She thinks that my dad and I are nuts,” Field said.
‘The cheaper the better’
In Florida, the parking lot at a 24-hour Wal-Mart in Orange Park near Jacksonville was filled to capacity by 4:45 a.m., despite temperatures in the low 40s.
Inside, Josh Jones, 22, and his 24-year-old wife, April, later stocked up on video games and DVDs. “The cheaper the better,” April Jones said. “We’re newlyweds so we don’t have a lot of money.”
While Black Friday officially starts holiday shopping, it’s generally no longer the busiest day of the season — that honor now falls to the last Saturday before Christmas. But stores see Black Friday as setting an important tone to the overall season: What consumers see that day influences where they will shop for the rest of the season.
Not a bellwether shopping day
Still, Black Friday isn’t a bellwether of the holiday season.
Last year, total sales dipped 0.9 percent to $8 billion on the Friday after Thanksgiving, dampened by deep discounting, from the year-ago period, according to Shopper Trak RCT Corp., which tracks total sales at more than 45,000 mall-based retail outlets. For the Thanksgiving weekend, total sales rose just 0.4 percent to $16.8 billion.
Still, last year, merchants ended up meeting their holiday sales figures, helped by a last-minute buying surge and post-Christmas shopping.
This year, analysts expect robust holiday sales gains for the overall retail industry, though the pace is expected to be slower than a year ago. The National Retail Federation projects a 5 percent gain in total holiday sales for the November-December period, less than the 6.1 percent in the year-ago period.
Meanwhile, the International Council of Shopping Centers estimates same-store sales will rise 3 in the November-December period, less than last year’s 3.6 percent.