As stores prepare for hordes of Black Friday shoppers and mark down high-definition TVs and hot toys, they're also pushing deals on something more mundane — necessities like socks and diapers.
Toys R Us, Walmart and clothing stores in malls are responding to tough economic times by luring people who are making it a more practical holiday this year.
What should shoppers expect? Fewer sumptuous sweaters, $200 robotic toys and other flashy items. Everyday items like flannel shirts, blankets and underwear are the order of the day.
They are designed to appeal to people like John La, a computer programmer from New York, who says he'll focus on simpler things like gloves and sweaters after layoffs hit his company earlier this year. "I am not going to splurge," he said.
Toys R Us' Babies R Us stores are armed with deals on jumbo packs of diapers and baby food for their 5 a.m. opening on Black Friday. Spokeswoman Kathleen Waugh expects shoppers will buy these staples not just for themselves but also as practical gifts.
Black Friday promotions at Walmarts include $7 fleece jackets and $3 children's pajamas alongside 50-inch Sanyo plasma HDTVs for $598.
The promotional blitz at the start of the holiday shopping season has high stakes this year for retailers that have suffered through a year of sales declines and for the economy, which could use a lift from consumer spending. Thanksgiving also falls late this year, meaning fewer shopping days.
Bigger crowds, same spending
The National Retail Federation trade group expects Black Friday crowds to be bigger this year, but retail consultant Walter Loeb says spending for the weekend will be at best unchanged from last year.
People are still "very nervous about the future," said Tracy Mullin, president of the federation. "But I think the good news is that stores get this new consumer, and the products are much less showy."
Stores had reason for optimism when shoppers came back to life a bit in September and October, finally reversing more than a year of sales declines. On Wednesday, the government said October consumer spending was up 0.7 percent, better than expected.
The momentum slowed in early November, particularly for clothing stores. Electronics have been a bright spot, though, thanks to early discounting of TVs and the unveiling of new video games — notably Activision's "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2."
As the financial meltdown and recession have kept shoppers frugal, stores have tweaked their merchandising approach for Black Friday, so named because it was traditionally the day when crowds of shoppers pushed stores into profitability.
Price cuts on big-ticket items like flat-panel TVs and computers are again being used to bring shoppers into stores. But this year, stores are also using necessities like diapers and socks as what the industry calls "loss leaders" — items that stores are willing to lose money on in order to draw shoppers through the doors.
Socks marked down
"Customers have cut back their spending broadly, and retailers need to take advantage of every time they're in the stores," John Long said.
Clothing stores are marking down not just seasonal items but also the basics, like socks, officials at mall operators Simon Properties and Taubman Centers said.
And Sears Holdings Corp., which operates Sears and Kmart stores, is making sure to highlight jackets, tool kits, blankets and boots in its Black Friday promotions, spokesman Tom Aiello said.
The early sales from the big chains and discounters have helped attract customers, but the pre-Thanksgiving discounts at clothing stores in malls were mostly ignored by shoppers, BMO Capital Markets analyst John Morris said.
One thing that could work in stores' favor: Shoppers who put off buying all but the most essential items all year may finally use the holidays as an excuse to splurge a little.
Marcia Layton Turner, a freelance writer from Rochester, N.Y., plans to join the Black Friday crowds to grab deals on toys like Legos and Wii games for her two children, ages 10 and 8.
"I delayed buying some toys for the kids for a couple of months," she said. "I did well last year by getting to stores before the 4 a.m. opening, so I'm hoping to be equally successful and efficient this year."