Gary Dinges/Austin-American Statesman – While you were busy tearing the wrapping paper off gifts last Christmas morning, retail executives were already thinking ahead – way ahead – and formulating plans for this holiday season.
A year’s worth of strategizing culminates this Thanksgiving weekend, when stores throughout Central Texas – and across the nation – slash prices and, in many cases, throw open their doors earlier than ever in hopes of luring shoppers.
A lot is at stake. The holiday season can account for as much as 30 percent of a retailer’s annual sales, according to the National Retail Federation, which estimates holiday season retail spending will hit $630.5 billion this year – up 3.7 percent from last year.
“This is our Super Bowl,” said Roxanne Hinger, manager of the Best Buy store at 9607 Research Blvd. in North Austin. “We practice all year for the next 10 to 12 weeks.”
That practice even includes drills, such as one held at sunrise Saturday, hours before the store opened for business. Employees role-played, reviewed selling strategies, pored over store maps and studied ad circulars.
“If we look stressed, our customers are going to be stressed,” Paul Harrison, a Best Buy assistant manager, cautioned a group of workers during Saturday’s “stress test.”
Perched atop a ladder, Hinger watched the action unfold, providing coaching as needed. Employees posing as customers streamed through the front doors, searching for specific items before heading to the registers to check out.
“Whether there’s a thousand customers or just one, it’s important to make sure they’re getting the same amazing experience,” Hinger told workers.
Things went smoothly Saturday – and Hinger, who has been with Best Buy for almost two decades, said she’s convinced that will be the case when the store opens at 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving, offering deals on TV sets, gaming systems and computers, among other items.
JCPenney, Target, Kohl’s, Toys R Us and Wal-Mart are among the other retailers offering Thanksgiving Day deals. Barton Creek Square mall and Lakeline Mall will be open, too.
It’s those deals – known as “doorbusters” – that retailers count on to drive traffic. At some stores, customers line up days in advance hoping to score a ticket that’ll enable them to purchase doorbuster merchandise.
“People are able to do more with less this time of year,” Hinger said. “On Thursday and Friday, in particular, they want to get everything on their list and get out of here quickly because they have a plan. We’re not their only stop.”
‘Jarring and superexciting’
To handle the expected crowds, retailers have added scores of seasonal workers.
The National Retail Federation estimates as many as 750,000 positions have been created nationwide – everything from cashiers and stockers to security personnel. That’s in addition to temporary hires made by companies such as FedEx and UPS.
Hinger started her own Best Buy career as a seasonal worker back in 1998.
“If someone would have asked me 17 years ago what I was going to do with my life, I never would have thought this,” she said. “When you find an organization that does something you believe in, that’s special. I’ll jump in and sell a TV, work a register, even clean the toilets if we need it.”
Hinger’s store has upped its head count for the next several weeks, with about 100 employees – or “blue shirts” – on hand to assist customers.
For many of them, it’s “been there, done that” when it comes to Black Friday. That experience comes in handy this time of year, Hinger said.
“The amount of customers in the store is just amazing,” said Joseph Clingan, who has worked for Best Buy for about two years. “You have no idea how fast-paced it’s going to be. You have energy drinks lined up. It’s jarring and superexciting at the same time.”
It’ll be up to Clingan and other veterans to help newcomers navigate the waters. Joshuah Alaniz, for instance, started less than a month ago.
“I was a little scared at first,” he said, “but I think the way we’ve coordinated everything will be a fun experience.”
Electronics retailers such as Best Buy should see some of the strongest sales this holiday season, according to retail analyst Jeff Green.
Apparel should do well, too, Green said.
While he anticipates sales will be up across the board, he’s not as optimistic as the National Retail Federation, projecting a more modest 2 percent increase. He says retailers were too quick to start markdowns this year, and that will hurt them in the end.
“The doorbusters started really early this year,” said Green, president and CEO of Jeff Green Partners. “It was ‘Goodbye, Halloween … hello, Christmas.’ When you start with doorbusters, you’re training us all to be value shoppers. We only buy stuff on sale.”
Also, back-to-school spending this year was essentially flat, Green said, and that’s often a good predictor of how the holidays will shake out.
Even though a growing number of retailers are opening on Thanksgiving, as well as expanding their hours on Black Friday, in a dash for cash, not everyone is entering the fray.
REI, for example, made headlines recently when executives revealed the chain would close on Black Friday. “Head outdoors,” they told customers.
That’s the same thing an Austin-based retailer has been doing for the past three years. TreeHouse, an eco-friendly home improvement store, will pay its workers to stay at home Friday.
“We close on Black Friday because we value our employees, customers and nature,” TreeHouse President Jason Ballard said.
But, don’t worry, bargain hunters. You’ll still have a chance to save, Ballard said, with deals sprinkled throughout the remainder of the holiday season.
“We know that gift giving and the holidays are a big deal for folks,” he said.