Justine Griffin/Sarasota Herald Tribune—With Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday and three weeks of shopping from now to Christmas, shoppers have more options than ever to get all the gifts on their holiday lists.
Southwest Florida moms Melissa Tomasso and Beth McCullagh are two of the 140 million people expected to shop during the Thanksgiving weekend — the biggest of the year for shopping activity. That anticipated turnout is down about 5 percent from last year, according to data collected by the National Retail Federation.
With doorbuster deals beginning earlier than ever — in some chain stores as early as 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. Thanksgiving Day — consumers are poised to see some of the best Black Friday discounts in years, experts say.
The Herald-Tribune will follow Tomasso and McCullagh as they hunt down deals, navigate crowds and stores and check off items on their holiday gift lists.
Though early predictions call for modest growth this year, shoppers are more likely to stretch their shopping over the entire weekend, said Jeff Green, retail analyst with the Phoenix-based consultancy bearing his name.
Black Friday is still expected to be the biggest shopping day of the weekend, with 69 percent of shoppers — 97 million — planning to hit the stores. About 33 million are expected to shop on Thanksgiving Day.
“Since the retailers have staggered their opening times, it will be interesting to see if shoppers actually buy anything else besides the doorbuster deals,” Green said. “Last year, we saw shoppers go in for the deal and leave without doing any other shopping. The idea of a doorbuster is just to get people in the door.
“My bet is they’ll leave to get to the next store in time.”
Beth McCallugh, or “Momma B” as she is affectionately called by her children’s teenage friends, is as dedicated to Black Friday shopping as they come.
She has a list of stores — Target, Kohl’s and RadioShack are among the top — that she visits every year on Black Friday, in an SUV packed with teenagers from Lakewood Ranch neighborhoods to help get all the items on her list.
“I don’t really even enjoy shopping all that much,” said McCullagh, who is busy year-round with soccer, lacrosse and basketball schedules for her children, Leland, 15, and Spencer, 13. “It’s more about the thrill of the hunt. About getting that deal.”
McCullagh admits that she shops for Christmas all year, stashing items in hidden places in her home until December, but buys the bulk of the bigger items, like tablets, video games and smartphones, on Black Friday.
“We go out all night. I’ll drop the kids off for breakfast in the morning and then keep going,” she said.
This year, McCullagh hopes to buy an iPhone 5c for her niece and an air rifle for her nephew.
Last year, both her children got iPads. This year, she expects to buy gift cards for apps and for websites that sell perks and accessories for the iPad.
No big-ticket items, like a television or computer, are on the current list.
“My kids don’t even watch cable anymore. It’s almost like the thrill of getting a good deal on a TV is obsolete now in the age of iPads and Netflix,” McCullagh said.
This year, McCullagh’s shopping plans are scaled back just a bit because of family matters. And she isn’t the only one reining things in — retail forecasts show that economic uncertainty surrounding the government shutdown earlier this year and a rise in gas prices have been pushing American consumers to take a conservative approach to spending this holiday season.
McCullagh plans to shop for a few hours after wrapping up a Thanksgiving meal with family in Tampa.
“We can’t go out until all hours of the morning like we usually do,” she said. “But since the stores are opening so early, we should be able to get everything we need in time.”
Her shopping strategy propels her to Tampa stores, specifically the Brandon Town Center area, because all the businesses she wants to visit at are close to one another there.
“Everything is so spread out in Sarasota,” she said.
That will change, however, once the 880,000-square-foot Mall at University Town Center opens next year at University Parkway and Interstate 75. It will be among a retail mix that already includes a Nordstrom Rack, BJ’s Wholesale, SuperTarget and Best Buy.
“The biggest question to come out of Thanksgiving is if the earlier hours are really worth it for the retailer,” Green said. “If they’re not seeing a lot of cross- shopping, most of their sales will be from doorbusters, and that’s not good.”
The National Retail Federation predicts the average shopper will spend $737.95 on gifts, holiday-themed decor, greeting cards and other products this year, down from $752.24 in 2012.
The federation expects holiday sales to increase at a modest 3.9 percent rate in 2013, bringing overall sales to $602.1 billion.
“If anything, coming out of the recession has made me more of a savvy shopper,” she said.
Once the turkey leftovers are gone and December rolls around, Melissa Tomasso will finally join the ranks of American consumers who have already begun shopping for the holidays.
Tomasso, mother of Jared, 14 and Malia, 11, is part of the minority of shoppers — 46.2 percent — who will not start shopping until after Thanksgiving, NRF data shows.
“After Thanksgiving I can start putting up the Christmas decorations, listen to the holiday music and get in the spirit to shop,” said Tomasso, who is a substitute teacher for Sarasota’s Lakeview Elementary on Proctor Road. She also is busy with her children, who play soccer and baseball.
For the first time in more than a decade, Thanksgiving falls on the last week of November, which has pushed the official start of the holiday back this year.
“There are only about three weeks in between Thanksgiving and Christmas, so I’m sure I’ll be cursing myself for starting so late.”
Tomasso likes to browse online and plans to make some purchases there. She hopes that family members, too, will find the items high on her Christmas list, like a pair of Tory Burch sandals, online. But there’s something about the in-person shopping experience that drives her into stores.
“I still like to see and feel what I’m buying,” she said, but she also admits that Kindles also are high on her shopping list this year, mostly because of the ease they provide when buying new books required for class. “That way I don’t have to go digging through the store to find what I need. I just download it.”
She plans to shop only in the Sarasota area.
“We have all the stores I need,” Tomasso said, which includes a trip or two to the new Nordstrom Rack, which opened on University Parkway earlier this month. Costco, too, will likely be one of her top places to shop for gifts.
This season follows a relatively flat holiday performance in 2012 and unimpressive sales so far this year surrounding back to school — the second biggest shopping holiday of the year — and Halloween.
“The lines will still be there on Black Friday but there will be fewer people with bags,” said Green, the Phoenix-based analyst. “People are shopping over a longer period of time. They have all weekend. From a grander perspective, retailers should see pretty good sales in November and not as good sales in December.”