Holiday sales don’t wait for holidays

Retailers hope to lure 'Black Friday' shoppers before Thanksgiving

“This year is an interesting one because we have already seen [Black Friday] sales start early,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for the NPD Group, Inc. “It is really going to be a gray Friday, not a Black Friday.”

Consumer participation in Black Friday has declined slightly but steadily over the past four years, from 26 percent in 2005 to 20 percent in 2008, according to a holiday poll from Consumer Reports National Research Center. Part of that decrease can be attributed to the economy, but also to an increase in consumer savvy, experts say. Shoppers know they no longer have to battle crowds to get the same deals they can get online or later in the season.

In the hope of boosting overall holiday sales, some retailers have opted to offer shoppers the same blowout bargains weeks in advance of Black Friday.

“By starting earlier ... you make it easier for the shoppers to come out and buy their gifts over a longer period of time. You are not concentrating all your shopping on Black Friday or the week leading up to Christmas,” said Ted Vaughan, a partner in the retail and consumer product group at BDO Seidman, LLP, a national accounting and consulting firm. Vaughan predicts that Black Friday sales will be relatively flat this season because of the heavy discounts retailers may have to offer to get consumers into stores. The pre-Black Friday sales, he said, could help offset the impact of those discounts.

This year, Sears opted to start weekly Black Friday sales in late October. “We had a very small [pre-Black Friday sale] last year and it was limited to just home electronic items,” said Tom Aiello, vice president of public relations for Sears Holdings. “The response was so overwhelming, we decided to expand it to the whole store. There are great value doorbuster type offers that the customer says, “We don’t really want to wait for one day of the year ... give those to us earlier.’ ”

“Black Friday Now” as it is called, takes place each Saturday through Thanksgiving for five hours beginning at 7 a.m. The first sale offered merchandise ranging from a Craftsman tool set priced at 50 percent off to a pair of three-eighth-carat diamond stud earrings for $80 (regularly priced at $260).

Discount retailer Wal-Mart recently offered tempting deals such as a $100 gift card with the purchase of any BlackBerry. And earlier this month, Kohl’s Department Store launched its pre-Black Friday shopping events with two days of “Power Shopping” sales. The deals included a $299 Nextar GPS system priced at $90 (after redemption of a $10 prepaid Visa card) and an extra 20 percent discount on toys already marked down 10 to 40 percent.

Will all these early deals mean even less of a bang on Black Friday?

“I honestly think the lines are still going to be huge,” Aiello said. “We have not only the great doorbuster deals, we have a lot of non-sales-driven specials that will be going on in the store.”

Vicki Shamion, vice president of public relations and community relations for Kohl’s, said the company still plans to take an aggressive approach to Black Friday. The early sales are part of an effort to look at the holiday season more holistically and offer consumers more opportunities to save regardless of when in the season they decide to shop, she said.

Consumers plan to spend less on holiday shopping this season — an average of $682.74 (a 3.2 percent drop from last year), according to the National Retail Federation. That means they will be searching for the best deals and being more discriminating about when and where they find them.

“What we have seen with retailers trying to get [consumers’] attention earlier and get them in a shopping frame of mind longer, is that people have become immune to it,” said Tod Marks a.k.a. “Tightwad Tod,” senior project editor for Consumer Reports. “They are going to be out on Black Friday weekend, but the numbers are down. People are waiting. They are being very careful with their money this year.”

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