Retail experts anticipate strong Black Friday sales

| Saturday, Nov. 27, 2010

Shoppers and retail experts called this year's post-Thanksgiving shopping frenzy definitely a Black -- not Bleak -- Friday.

Malls and big-box stores in Western Pennsylvania and across the nation grew busy before dawn, and most shoppers spent at least as much money as they did last year. The National Retail Federation predicted Black Friday sales topping $447 billion, building on retailers' momentum after a solid start to November.

"Never have I gotten here at a quarter 'til 5 (a.m.) and had to search for a parking space," said Lisa Earl, manager of Ross Park Mall. Many stores opened at 4 and 5 a.m., and some as early as midnight.

Experts say Black Friday doesn't necessarily provide a complete forecast of holiday sales, but it does offer clues to shoppers' attitudes and behavior.

Some stores began to offer sales days earlier, and most retailers are promoting discounts all weekend.

Early signs pointed to bigger bargain crowds seeking deals from TVs to toys. Analysts said many people paid with cash and appeared focused, researching purchases before venturing out.

"Where there are bargains, there are people looking to gobble them up," said Marshal Cohen, chief analyst for market research firm NPD. His consultants in 11 regions estimated at least 15 percent of purchases were items for shoppers themselves, up from about 9 percent a year ago. In good economic times, such purchases run about 26 percent.

Yet, nearly 15 million people are unemployed, and concerns about job security still cloud consumer confidence. Spending picked up, but not to pre-recession levels.

"It's a dogfight between retail companies," said Chris Donnelly, a senior executive in consulting group Accenture's retail practice.

Last year, the Thanksgiving shopping weekend accounted for 12.3 percent of overall holiday revenue, according to ShopperTrak. Black Friday made up about half of that.

Many of Ross Park Mall's more than 150 stores advertised limited-time, deep discounts -- which drove people to shop and drove sales upward. The Gap, for example, marked down merchandise by 50 percent until 10 a.m.

"I love this madness," said Suzanne Schultz, 35, of Point Breeze, who trolled the mall with her mother. "I just saw the longest store line in my life, at The Gap."

Retailers refer to the traditional day to start shopping for the holiday season as "Black Friday" because they count on its sales to push them financially "into the black" for the year.

"I get a sense we'll be pleasantly surprised with the sales on Black Friday," said Paige Beal, marketing professor at Point Park University, Downtown.

Beal expects holiday sales revenue to be 2.3 percent to 2.4 percent higher this year over 2009.

"If I can't shop 'til I drop, then I'm not shopping," said Donna Shirley of Blacklick, Indiana County, as she hunted for gifts for her grandchildren at Toys 'R Us in Hempfield.

She shopped with three other women. Combined, they spent more than $2,000 -- before breaking for lunch.

One of them, Janeen Witmer of Blacklick, began shortly after midnight at Wal-Mart near Blairsville, waiting in line 3 12 hours for a chance to buy two laptop computers.

"The busiest stores I've seen have been Best Buy and Apple stores," said Jeff Green, a veteran retail analyst based in Phoenix. "So that tells you people are looking for electronics."

Discounting on electronics gadgets and other wares began earlier this month, said Green.

Edward Gray, 21 of Washington arrived at South Hills Village Mall about 4:45 a.m. He saved at least 50 percent on items, including toys from the Disney Store.

"There are many good sales," said Gray. "There is a recession, so it's hard to not take advantage of them."

Better household budgeting, or "a culture of saving," that many families adopted months ago helped support sales, said Point Park's Beal.

"People were not spending as much on frivolous things leading up to the holidays in order to save up for their holiday shopping," she said.

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