Western Pa. retailers enthused about early shopping action

| Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

If Western Pennsylvania merchants are any indication, retailers will record modestly merrier sales this shopping season.

Managers of independent stores — from menswear to toys to women's boutiques — said Black Friday foot traffic was running ahead of last year's and sales volumes were up somewhat.

“It's been busy. We've been jammed all day,” said Chaz Schaldenbrand, owner of gentlemen's apparel shop Heinz Healey's, Downtown. “And people are buying things. Spending is up.”

One repeat customer, for example, bought two suits on Friday instead of his usual one suit, Schaldenbrand said. “And that's the way it's been going.”

Allen Difrischia, manager of Playthings Etc., said it was “crazy busy” in the toy store in Clay, Butler County, on Friday morning. Though the store wasn't running door-buster sales, as so many big-box chains have been, its unique product selection brought in shoppers, Difrischia said.

“We've been doing really well,” he said. DiFiischia expects Black Friday and Small Business Saturday sales to be 5 percent to 8 percent ahead of last year.

Never Enough, a women's boutique in Greensburg, was bustling as customers eyed jewelry and purses on sale. The shop offered discounts on specific items and, by noon, nearly ran out of free gifts that accompanied $100 Vera Bradley purchases.

“It seems a little busier this year,” said owner Rosine Dull. She expected a steady flow of customers all day and was especially upbeat about prospects for Small Business Saturday.

Doug Satterfield, of Rolliers hardware store in Mt. Lebanon, called the shopping traffic on Friday “brisk,” with many people coming in to pick up holiday decorations.

“People are now in the mindset of ‘OK ... Thanksgiving is over ... I can get out and decorate,' ” said Satterfield, who was feeling optimistic about consumers' willingness to spend slightly more money this holiday season.

In Greensburg, Penelope's owner Mimi Trakofler said Small Business Saturday is one of the store's two best days of the year for revenue.

“We're very grateful to American Express,” Trakofler said, referring to the financial services company that promoted the first Small Business Saturday in 2010.

American retailers count on revenue from Black Friday, the traditional beginning of holiday shopping and so named for when they hope to turn a profit for the year. Retailers pulled in about $11.2 billion in sales that day last year, according to market research firm ShopperTrak.

Holiday sales during November and December generally account for 20 to 40 percent of a retailer's annual sales, according to the National Retail Federation.

Despite the uncertain economy, shoppers intend to spend more on gifts this year, according to a poll of 1,005 adults by Discover Financial Services. The survey said consumers will spend an average $1,014 this season, or 20 percent more than the $845 average last year.

Jeff Green, a veteran retail consultant in Phoenix, expects retail sales for the November-December season will rise no more than 2 percent this year over last.

Major retailers “are concerned” about their prospects this holiday season, said Green, which is mainly why they stretched Black Friday hours into Thanksgiving by opening stores earlier than in 2012.

One consequence of the early openings was that crowds hit big-box stores for discounts when stores opened on Thanksgiving but thinned by morning, said Green, who visited malls on both days. Many retailers began discounting merchandise a week or more earlier than last year.

“So a lot of gifts were bought before Black Friday, which took some of the steam out of Black Friday itself,” said Green.

Similarly, sales volumes on Cyber Monday may be flat this year, but mainly because online purchases continue to grow in general, not just on the Monday after Thanksgiving, said Chris Christopher, director of consumer economics at IHS Global Insight.

“Cyber Monday is becoming less relevant than it's been in the past,” said Christopher.

Western Pennsylvania shoppers, like those elsewhere, began lining up for bargains early. A number of them huddled at one entrance to J.C. Penney at Westmoreland Mall in Hempfield on Thursday night.

“It's time, isn't it?” Vicki Stadterman, 50, of Yukon said as she pulled on the door minutes before a store employee opened it.

The customer queue grew outside the Best Buy store at Pittsburgh Mills in Frazer before the store's opening.

“I've been waiting a while to get a computer that will last into the future,” said Frank Pelky of Freeport, one of those in line.

Computers were among the fast-moving items on Black Friday, said Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Others included big-screen televisions, the iPad mini laptops and video gaming systems. The retailer sold 2 million TVs and 300,000 bicycles on Thanksgiving.

Thomas Olson is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7854 or tolson@tribweb.com. Staff writers Alex Nixon and Renatta Signorini contributed to this report.

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