Deal time

Price-conscious shrug off economy troubles to grab up bargains

November 28, 2008|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,andrea.walker@baltsun.com

The economy may be forcing consumers to pull back on spending overall, but it is not expected to stop people from braving long lines and crowds for today's post-Thanksgiving deals.

The hope from retailers is that customers will open their wallets and spend.

Price-conscious shoppers worried about rising utility and food prices and falling home values are expected to crowd stores today in larger numbers than in recent years as they look for the best bargains, according to retail experts. And then there are shoppers who see Black Friday, called such because it was long responsible for putting merchants' ledgers in the black, as a sport and tradition that can't be missed, even amid a weak economy.

Retailers, who have seen weak sales despite offering holiday deals well before Halloween, are ready for them all with plans to offer some of the steepest discounts ever, analysts said. While today isn't necessarily the biggest shopping day of the year anymore, since the weekend before Christmas usually tops most sales, it helps set the mood for the rest of the season. And right now retailers hope to reverse a sentiment among shoppers not to spend.

"More people tell us they're going to be in the store," said Greg Daugherty, executive editor at Consumer Reports. "Now whether they will buy anything is the question."

More than a quarter of consumers plan to go shopping today, up 5 percentage points from the 21 percent that shopped on Black Friday last year, according to a survey by Consumer Reports. But not as many consumers may visit merchants during the next few days: The National Retail Federation said as many as 128 million people will shop throughout the weekend, down from 135 million last year.

There is plenty at stake for retailers who already are seeing a slowdown. The retail trade group expects the holiday season, when most retailers ring up the bulk of their sales, will be the worst since 2002, with business increasing just 2.2 percent, well below the 10-year average increase of 4.4 percent. Others predict that sales could decline for the season.

Some retail experts say the danger for merchants today is that shoppers will buy the doorbuster deals, but nothing else.

"Black Friday is to get you in and then you buy the other stuff," said Randy Allen, associate dean for corporate relations at Cornell University's Johnson School of Business, who once worked for Kmart. "I think what you're going to see happening this year is the buying of the other stuff isn't going to happen as much. They're going to get the deals, but if they see something else and it's not a deal, they're waiting to see if it goes on sale later."

A survey of 100 chief marketing officers at major retailers conducted by BDO Seidman LLP indicated that Black Friday sales would increase 1.2 percent this year. Most of the executives thought their sales would be flat for the day.

Retailers might not be able to persuade shoppers like Tiffany Venable to spend. Venable, 24, goes out every year with three carloads of family members for Black Friday. As someone who buys gifts throughout the year, Venable said she has finished most of her holiday shopping.

"It's just the experience of being out there with the family," said Venable, a debt collector from Baltimore who was shopping at Best Buy in White Marsh recently.

Tina Bauer, on the other hand, is looking for the bargains. Every year, she scours the sale circulars on Thanksgiving Day and maps out a plan for what stores to hit throughout the day. She also surfs the Internet for leaked Black Friday deals. Last year, she visited several different Best Buy stores to see which ones had the shorter lines. She expects to visit one again today as she shops for a Nikon Coolpix digital camera, which is supposed to be on sale.

"I'll be somewhere when the doors open," said Bauer, a 41-year-old leasing consultant who lives in Bel Air. She shopped at Best Buy in White Marsh this week, comparing the price of a laptop computer that she hopes goes on sale soon.

Retailers are cautious about estimating how big the crowds will be this year, but say they're discounting as never before.

"I don't have a crystal ball to predict how many shoppers will be waiting outside our store...," said E.R. Anderson, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. But "we believe we will be well-positioned for this economy."

Wal-Mart is offering deals today and tomorrow on things like $8 jeans and a Magnavox Blu-ray disc player for $128. J.C. Penney said that it will have some of the most "compelling" Black Friday prices in the company's history, with 400 specials - 20 percent more than last year.

Kohl's will stay open until midnight tonight and said it will offer discounts on more than 300 items, a significant increase from last year. Toys are 50 percent off, and designer brands such as Simply Vera by Vera Wang are discounted 40 percent to 50 percent.

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