Holiday shopping frenzy begins 'Black Friday' offers retailers early look at spending habits

'We're out for bargains'

November 28, 1998|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Jamal E. Watson, Jackie Powder and Tanya Jones contributed to this article.

Lured by free Hot Wheels cars, specials on pup tents and the chance to win a minivan, 300 holiday shoppers shivered in the pre-dawn chill yesterday outside Target in Towson for as long as an hour. Even more customers, hunting the elusive Furby "animatronic" pets, lined up at Montgomery Ward nearby and at Wal-Mart in Westminster.

Waiting continued inside stores on "Black Friday" -- the day after Thanksgiving and the traditional kickoff to the holiday spending season -- as shoppers dragged plastic sacks of toys through winding checkout lines at Kay-Bee Toys in several malls and loaded up on designer jeans at the Tommy Hilfiger outlet in Hagerstown.

"We're out for the bargains," said Linda Dwyer of Timonium, who started the day at Kmart at 6 a.m., then waited in line at Target with her 14-year-old daughter. "It's not the holiday season unless you shop today."

For Pam Gladden, the day started with a 5 a.m. wake-up call from her 27-year-old daughter -- early enough for the pair to get close to the front of Target's line.

"The TV ads said you could win a $100 gift certificate or a chance to win a minivan, and I thought I'd come out and try," said Gladden, who said she'd mostly wanted to browse and get ideas.

Others had honed their shopping strategy to a science. Joan Beauchamp of Parkville clutched store circulars and gift lists for three children as she navigated the crowded aisles of Target's toy department.

L "I write my game plan out," she said. "I don't spend a lot."

Last year the Friday after Thanksgiving ranked as the year's seventh busiest shopping day, with the crucial Thanksgiving-to-Christmas period accounting for at least a quarter of annual sales and 40 percent or more of annual profits, said John Konarski, vice president of the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC). The Saturday before Christmas was the busiest day last year, he said. Yesterday and this weekend should account for about 9 percent of total holiday sales, he said.

Initial reports showed mall traffic was exceptionally high, Konarski said. At Newport Center in Jersey City, N.J., which Konarski surveys because it typifies malls around the country, traffic counts rose between 25 percent and 50 percent, though he said numbers could be skewed by early-bird specials on popular toys such as Furby, an animatronic furry creature that dances, wiggles its ears and speaks "Furbish."

"It's a good sign," though it's unclear whether that will mean a hefty boost in sales, he said.

For most of the year, retailers have reaped the benefits of a robust economy and strong consumer spending. But heading into the fourth quarter, analysts revised initially cheery expectations, anticipating more restraint from consumers amid uncertainty on Wall Street. An ICSC forecast released yesterday, just days after the Dow Jones industrial average climbed more than 1,800 points above its low for the year, calls for a 4 percent increase in holiday sales, based on a survey of three dozen retail analysts.

Black Friday, so named because of the black ink -- profits -- it generates for retailers, "is a very important indication of how the season is going to turn out," allowing retailers to see how key items, such as toys and sweaters, are selling, said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates Inc., a New York-based national retail consulting firm. "It allows retailers to determine their pricing strategy. If you know something is slow, you'll be more aggressive in marking it down earlier."

He said he expects a strong season.

"Housing [sales] are good, wealth is good, new job creation is good and inflation is down," Davidowitz said. "The pieces are in place for a strong Christmas."

Shoppers out yesterday said they expect to spend about the same -- if not more -- than last year because the economy's doing well.

"Thanks to Bill Clinton and Alan Greenspan, we're all going to have a merrier Christmas this year," said John Applegate, 53, of Columbia, who left MJ Design at Long Gate Shopping Center in Ellicott City with two carts full of gifts. Applegate said he spent $1,156 in just three hours of shopping. "I enjoyed spending the money, and I will enjoy wrapping the gifts and giving them to family and friends."

The season is expected to be especially strong for mass discounters such as Wal-Mart, Kmart and Target and specialty stores such as the Gap, buoyed by its popular Old Navy division.

"The department stores have been challenged, no doubt," Konarski said. "But this is their season, so maybe this can get them through."

Outlet centers, appealing to consumers' penchant for bargains, are also expected to fare well. Prime Outlets at Hagerstown, the state's newest outlet center, had its busiest day yesterday since opening in August, said Alice Rosen, marketing director.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.