Super Bowl of retail days

Managers huddle, hope cash registers will run up score

November 23, 2006|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN REPORTER

Inside a back office at the Best Buy in Columbia is a huge, wall-length replica of the store's floor plan - the kind of diagram a coach might use to help instruct players.

Color-coded stickers highlight where each of the 225 employees will be positioned tomorrow - beginning with the 5 a.m. rush for steep discounts on laptops and flat-screen televisions. Red lines indicate where cash register lines will begin and end. And six green dots represent where workers will stand outside the store to make sure nobody sneaks ahead of the hundreds expected to be in line.

Call it the playbook for the day after Thanksgiving, the official start of the holiday shopping season for stores such as Best Buy. Among retail workers, it marks the beginning of long shifts and no vacation days, trying to please throngs of demanding customers and pushing to exceed last year's sales figures.

Thanks to the shopping hype associated with the day after Thanksgiving, retail workers often must manage aggressive crowds filled with sleep-deprived consumers who are on the hunt for one-chance bargains.

"It's just like managing a sports team," says Kevin McGrath, 49, the store's general manager and a veteran of day-after-Thanksgiving sales. "The [Baltimore] Ravens are successful because they know what is expected of them."

It is not surprising that McGrath uses sports metaphors to describe the importance of the day after Thanksgiving - a shopping game that some consumers love to play. McGrath, a die-hard football fan, often shows scenes from the Disney football movie Remember the Titans to motivate his staff to work as a team. And one of his employees will lead a cheer from the movie 15 minutes before the doors open tomorrow.

And if everything goes according to plan, the Columbia Best Buy will have what the consumer electronics chain calls a "Green Friday" for the sales it takes in.

"If you do it right, you're very profitable," McGrath says.

Often referred to as "Black Friday" because it marked the day that retailers traditionally posted a profit for the year, the day after Thanksgiving has become a shopping phenomenon. Retailers have midnight openings, parties and other events to lure shoppers.

Though it is nowhere near the busiest shopping day of the year anymore, it sets the tone for the rest of the season. A good weekend means retailers don't have to cut prices just yet. A soft one means new strategies are needed to salvage a season that often accounts for 20 percent to 40 percent of annual retail sales.

The National Retail Federation predicts $457.4 billion in holiday spending this year, a 5 percent increase over 2005. That would be a solid showing but not as good as last year, when sales rose 6.1 percent to $435.6 billion.

In the consumer electronics market, the competition remains fierce as prices keep falling on popular gadgets this season. Consumers are expected to spend a bigger chunk of their holiday shopping budget on MP3 players, digital cameras and flat-screen televisions. And last week's release of the Sony PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii consoles is driving up interest in all things electronic.

Adding to this year's competitive environment is Wal-Mart's aggressive move to slash prices on nearly 100 consumer electronics items, prompting competitors such as Target, Best Buy and Circuit City to lower prices, too.

It is against this backdrop that retailers have been planning and preparing for tomorrow.

At a Wal-Mart store in Towson, manager Rob Witkowski has scheduled 95 percent of his staff, or about 300 people, to work tomorrow. Nearly 200 workers will be on the spot to handle the frenzied 5 a.m.-to-11 a.m. crowd, many of whom will camp out overnight to snatch early-bird specials.

"The biggest responsibility will be replenishing our shelves," Witkowski said.

When it comes to managing the day after Thanksgiving, Best Buy and others have honed their methods over the years. Last weekend, 811 Best Buy stores simulated day-after-Thanksgiving activities, practicing everything from handing out tickets for door-buster items to line management to crowd control.

"Each general manager and assistant manager have put in hundreds of hours of planning and preparation," said Best Buy spokesman Brian Lucas. "It's the kind of a thing you can't wait around and make sure you're executing well."

By 3 a.m. tomorrow, McGrath, his five assistant managers and supervisors will arrive at the store. An hour later, McGrath will be ready with Mountain Dew, Red Bull and chocolate when most morning-shift workers walk in for their day.

At 3:30 a.m., five supervisors and several workers will survey the line that could be snaking around the building by then. They will hand out store maps and tickets for a limited number of door-buster items from front to back until they run out. The employees will coach customers on how to proceed once inside the store.

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