Stress on earlier shopping de-emphasizes Black Friday

Dancers from the Rock School of Ballet performed during ceremonies Saturday surrounding the unveiling of Macy's holiday windows.
Dancers from the Rock School of Ballet performed during ceremonies Saturday surrounding the unveiling of Macy's holiday windows. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 27, 2013

You've seen the signs everywhere, and days before Black Friday - in your inbox, online, and screaming from store displays: Holiday doorbusters starting "TODAY!" And promises of more deals to be had on Turkey Day itself.

If last year's unprecedented early store openings were perceived as a fluke, this year is proof that Black Friday is no longer the marketing hook that kicks off Christmas, Hanukkah, and all other holiday shopping.

Instead, the day after Thanksgiving is taking a permanent backseat, it seems, to shopping everywhere, all the time. What began as an experiment to inspire shoppers stung by a poor economy has become the new tradition.

The early-bird push may be more acute this year, in part because there are six fewer days between Thanksgiving and Christmas than last year, not to mention Hanukkah's early start Wednesday. With less time to make the same (or more) money, retailers are looking to move merchandise earlier than ever.

"We're very optimistic," said Gary Boyer, director of stores for Reading-based Boscov's Department Stores Inc., whose 43 stores in six states have been festooned with holiday decor since early November and will open after dinner Thanksgiving.

"There is a challenge with six days less between Thanksgiving and Christmas," Boyer added, "but in my 30 years of retailing, [most business] seems to come at the end anyhow."

Area shopping malls are joining in with Thanksgiving hours, as are countless mass retailers - Walmart, Old Navy, Gap, Kmart, and many more.

"Last year [opening] was 9 p.m. This year, it's 8 p.m.," said Rick Dengelegi, a district team leader in charge of nine of Target's Philadelphia-area stores. Displays will be assembled on sales floors the night before Thanksgiving, he said.

A third of small-business owners were planning promotions on or before Thanksgiving as well, according to findings released Monday by Chase Bank USA.

The push toward earlier sales is all the more urgent given the ease with which online retailers have been extending offers before, during, and after Turkey Day.

Not only do Internet retailers push exclusive Web sales after Thanksgiving on a date they market as "Cyber Monday," they have been offering deals on or before the holiday, pulling business from stores that must then find their own new tricks.

On Monday, Amazon sent customer e-mails announcing: "Black Friday Deals Week Starts Now. Big savings. No waiting."

Store-based companies have met such challenges by opening before Black Friday with lucrative deals for shoppers, extending sales to their Web portals, and beefing up merchandise offerings there, too.

Montgomery Mall, among others in the area, will open at 8 p.m. Thanksgiving and stay open for 26 hours straight.

Though the holidays are a rush for many in retail, the race is hardly a gleeful or easy pursuit of shopper dollars anymore. In today's economy, it's more like an episode of Retailer Survivor, given how American shoppers remain fiscally cautious.

"This year, we expect holiday retail sales to increase only 3.2 percent," said IHS Global Insight economist Chris G. Christopher Jr. "This year's holiday sales growth rate is expected to be the weakest since 2009."

One of the strongest retailers this season, Macy's Inc., which also operates Bloomingdale's, is opening Macy's stores on Thanksgiving this year, but it also preceded Black Friday with several big sales over the last week alone.

"I think they'll be spending more at my store" was the optimistic prediction of Macy's chairman, president, and chief executive Terry Lundgren during a recent interview in Philadelphia.

When asked how Macy's would fare given uncertain forecasts for the industry this winter, Lundgren said: "We don't need consumers to spend more money than they did last year. We just need them to spend more money at Macy's and Bloomingdale's than they did last year."

At least one customer was doing her part at Macy's Center City store Saturday, hardly aware of costume-clad carolers, Santa Claus, and the Phillie Phanatic revving up patrons before the curtain went up on a Market Street holiday display window.

Despite the luscious scenes of holiday theater, Sharon Sanders traipsed past a stage of Christmas carolers near the Light Show, immersed instead in early bargain-hunting.

"I usually wait till Black Friday," said the Southwest Philadelphia woman, holding two large plastic Macy's bags. "These were $119 pot sets - but I got them for $27."

Both will be Christmas gifts, she explained. The prices were too good to sit out.

"I wanted to grab the sale while I can," said Sanders, who planned to further disrupt her normal shopping routine by also turning out on Thanksgiving. "Matter of fact, I'll probably be here that day after dinner."

Market-research firm NPD Group has found that 27 percent of American shoppers planned to start their gift-buying before Thanksgiving. Those early shoppers, NPD said, tended to be more budget-conscious consumers - married mothers who own a home and who were more likely to use coupons than Thanksgiving shoppers or those who turn out during the holiday's final days.

Shoppers are so in charge anymore, it seems, that just being open on Thanksgiving is not always a smart business move in and of itself.

Boscov's learned last year that most shoppers who venture out during the once-untouchably stay-at-home holiday are not, as it had initially surmised, as willing to do so before the day's big feast. Boscov's opened last year from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., to give its workers a chance to be home in time for dinner.

Competitors who opened last year after dinner did very well, so this year, Boscov's has switched strategy and will open from 7 p.m. to midnight Thanksgiving, Boyer said. Also, its stores will open later on Black Friday, at 6 a.m., two hours later than last year.

"We didn't really see it being all that productive opening at 4 a.m.," Boyer said.


mpanaritis@phillynews.com

215-854-2431 @Panaritism

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