For early birds, Black Friday is Thursday
More stores — and shoppers — seek a Thanksgiving advantage
Kevin McQuaid / Sarasota Herald-Tribune
While most of us will fritter away this morning preparing for holiday meals or NFL football, Rich Wellman and his crew at Sports Authority will be working.
From 9 a.m. until 3 p.m., Wellman and some 15 other Sports Authority employees will man the chain’s Sarasota store for those eager to get the jump on holiday buying.
“We’re expecting quite a busy day,” said Wellman, the store’s operations manager.
This year, Sports Authority and a handful of other retailers in Southwest Florida — Sears, Kmart, Wal-Mart and Old Navy among them — will open their doors Thanksgiving Day to capture precious dollars from economy-weary shoppers.
Sears, for the first time in the chain’s 85-year history, will be open from 7 a.m. to noon. Old Navy, whose Sarasota store boasts a sign urging customers to “Stuff yourself with deals,” will be open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.
And Toys R Us intends to open at 10 p.m. today.
Taken together, retail analysts say, Thanksgiving shopping and pre-holiday deals could spell the beginning of the end of Black Friday, the traditional start to the Christmas shopping season.
“Everybody wants the customer first,” said Jeff Green, a Phoenix-based retail consultant whose feasibility study led to the placement of the Sur La Table store in downtown Sarasota. “That’s why there’s such a trend toward Thanksgiving shopping.”
Although many retail observers expect 2010 to be a better holiday season than previous years — the International Council of Shopping Centers, or ICSC, is predicting a 3.5 percent boost, making it the best season in four years — many experts contend consumers will be just as fickle as they were in 2009. And 2008.
The Conference Board, a New York group that tracks economic indicators, expects households to spend an average of $384 on Christmas gifts this year, slightly under 2009 spending levels. Only 25 percent of 5,000 households surveyed said they planned to spend more than $500 this holiday season, slightly less than last year, the group said Tuesday.
“Consumers are approaching the holiday season in a somewhat cautious mood,” said Lynn Franco, director of the business group’s consumer research center.
Closer to home, an America’s Research Group survey earlier this month found that 52 percent of Florida families planned to spend less this holiday season than in 2009. Only 12 percent said they would spend more.
With unemployment still at a dizzying 9.6 percent nationwide and even higher — nearly 12 percent — in Southwest Florida, capturing consumers’ scant dollars this year will likely prove more difficult than ever.
As a result, though Black Friday may not be superfluous, it is becoming increasingly obsolete as a day for merchants and shoppers alike.
Retailers are “continuing to downplay the importance of Black Friday promotions this year — only 22 percent are running the most promotions on Black Friday,” the Hay Group, a Philadelphia consulting firm, told the ICSC recently.
Beating the rush
Already in Florida, many shoppers eschew long lines the day after Thanksgiving.
Some 40 percent of residents now start buying holiday gifts before Halloween, the Florida Retail Federation reported this month.
While Black Friday will remain a huge shopping day — the ICSC predicts it will be the largest day for both consumer traffic and retail sales this season, with some 75 million nationwide flooding malls and stores — evidence is mounting that buying is bleeding into Thanksgiving and the days surrounding it.
Last year, the National Retail Federation concluded that more than 18 million Americans shopped on Thanksgiving, at Sports Authority and elsewhere.
“Last year was fantastic,” Wellmam, the local store manager, said of Thanksgiving 2009. “People came here to beat the rush.”
Moreover, analysts expect the tepid economy and retailers’ aggressiveness will continue to erode Black Friday.
“Retailers are making the biggest effort I’ve ever seen to get customers in stores early,” said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates Inc., a New York retail consulting and investment banking firm.
“From a retailers’ point of view, it’s pretty smart, because they know they get more profit margin earlier rather than later,” Davidowitz added. “Retailers know how bad things are. They know the consumer is still in recession.”
For those seeking deals on Black Friday, there will still be ample opportunity — even earlier than before.
Kohl’s plans to open Friday morning at 3 a.m., the earliest in its history. Last year, the chain opened on Black Friday at 4 a.m.
Ellenton Premium Outlets, famous for its “Midnight Madness” events of recent years, is pushing hours back, too. More than half of the outlet mall’s 130 stores — including The Children’s Place, Juicy Couture, Nike Factory Store and Polo/Ralph Lauren — will be open before midnight this year, representatives of owner Simon Property Group said. Many will open at 10 p.m.
Another change in Ellenton: Unlike in previous years, when pajama-clad shoppers got goody bags, this year the outlets are limiting incentives to savings, which they say will be from 25 percent to 65 percent.
At Sports Authority, Thanksgiving shoppers will receive 25 percent off their entire purchases and a $10 cash card, Wellman said. On Friday, the chain will offer 10 hours of “doorbusters” beginning at 5 a.m.
Bealls, the Bradenton-based chain known for Florida-themed merchandise, plans to open at 4 a.m. Friday, and lure shoppers with $10 off $25 purchases.
On the other end of the retail spectrum, Saks Fifth Avenue in the Southgate Mall will sell cashmere sweaters at 50 percent off beginning at 8 a.m. Friday, said General Manager Sally Schule.
But retail experts are divided on whether opening Thanksgiving will pay dividends.
Green, a retail consultant to Coach and Williams-Sonoma, said he does not think the increased hours will translate into more sales, because most shoppers — and most holidays cooks — are women.
“I don’t happen to think it’s a great idea,” he said.
Davidowitz, the New York retail consultant, agrees.
“It’s a big bet, a big-money decision for some of these companies,” he said. “Personally, I don’t think it will pay off for the retailers, but at the same time, I think they feel so strongly they have to do something, they’re doing it anyway.”