Is Black Friday still important?

The day is losing popularity among some shoppers, but still crucial for retailers

  • Anthony Kaczynski of Baltimore, who shopped early this year, purchased his last Christmas present while shopping at White Marsh Mall about a week before Black Friday.
Anthony Kaczynski of Baltimore, who shopped early this year,… (Baltimore Sun photo by Barbara…)
November 19, 2010|By Andrea K. Walker, The Baltimore Sun

Getting the best prices of the holiday season once meant traipsing to stores before dawn the day after Thanksgiving to battle long lines, huge crowds — and sometimes cranky customers — for doorbuster deals that came only once a year.

This year some consumers might sleep in and skip Black Friday, the traditional kickoff of the holiday shopping season, recent surveys suggest. With stores promoting bargain prices weeks earlier and the increasing popularity of Internet shopping, some retail experts said, what is often the biggest shopping day of the year may be losing its pull.

Perhaps it will one day be called Black Thursday. That's because at many stores, the rush officially begins on Thanksgiving Day this year. Sears will open on turkey day for a few hours starting at 7 a.m. for the first time ever. And Toys "R" Us will open at 10 p.m.

The changing retail landscape has stoked a debate about the relevance of Black Friday.

"Consumers have been trained in the last holiday season that there are a lot of sales and Black Friday isn't their only opportunity to get bargains," said Greg Daugherty, executive editor of Consumer Reports magazine. "What some people are telling us is they're going to sit it out this year."

A recent survey by consulting firm Accenture found what it described as a "rise in consumer apathy" toward Black Friday, with 53 percent of people saying they would skip shopping that day or have not yet decided their plans, up from 48 percent last year. And Consumer Reports estimates that 102 million people will hit the stores Black Friday weekend, about 16 million fewer than last year. A quarter of those said they would shop Friday.

Retailers, however, are as hopeful as ever for this year's Black Friday. The National Retail Federation, a trade group, believes this Black Friday weekend will be bigger than last year. The federation expects 138 million people to crowd stores that weekend, 12 million more than a year ago. The group didn't break out how many would head out Friday.

Many stores are planning for it, hiring extra security and preparing to hand out store maps and coffee to the people who wait outside their doors hours before opening. And they have been promoting the day's bargains on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.

If history is a guide, their actions are justified. Data show that the day still often ranks in the top-five biggest sales days of the season, even if it is losing some followers. It accounted for 6.4 percent of all holiday sales last year, according to Shoppertrak, up from about 5 percent in 2004.

The day got its name because it was typically when retailers turned a profit for the year — moving out of the red and into the black.

This year some budget-conscious shoppers are spreading their spending throughout the season.

Anthony Kaczynski will be at home in his warm house while others are bundled up outside stores on Friday. The 22-year-old, who lives in Baltimore and works at a Mars grocery store, participated in the Black Friday experience last year and had his fill.

"It made me mad," he said of the crowded stores.

This year, he shopped early sales and was at White Marsh Mall last week buying his last gift, an Xbox gaming system for his little brother that he got on discount at Game Stop. "The deals have already started, so you can go now and get what you want at a good price," he said.

The competition among the stores for shoppers has gotten more intense with each year. Stores seem to be trying to outdo each other for who can open the earliest.

Kohl's is opening at 3 a.m., its earliest start ever, while Macy's will greet shoppers at 4 a.m. Walmart will offer doorbuster deals at midnight and then again at 5 a.m. At several malls owned by General Growth Properties — including Towson Town Center, White Marsh Mall and The Mall in Columbia — some stores will open at midnight. A sign in front of New York & Co. at White Marsh Mall summed it up: "Shop Early … Reaalllly Early."

Toys "R" Us took it a step further by planning to open Thanksgiving Day and remain open through Black Friday.

"Customers are still going to come out in great numbers on Black Friday," said Tom Aiello, a spokesman for Sears and Kmart.

"The customers are looking for value, and they're going to come out early to shop," said Harry Anuszewski, the manager at Walmart in Cockeysville. 

America's Research Group, which tracks shopping trends, also believes this year will be the biggest Black Friday for retailers since the group began tracking retail sales 20 years ago. He said the still-sputtering economy has made shoppers more eager for bargains.

"Consumers know these are the best deals of the year," said Britt Beemer of America's Research Group. "They're going to buy the early-bird specials."

To be sure, many shoppers continue to view Black Friday as a family tradition or sport after being cooped up in the house on Thanksgiving Day.

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