Black Friday Deals Abound, but Consumer Response is Uncertain
Retailers are upping the ante this Black Friday with bigger deals and longer store hours, but pollsters and economists disagree over the extent to which consumer spending will follow suit.
In an effort to lure more shoppers through their doors, retailers in and around Watertown are raising the stakes this Black Friday with bigger deals and longer store hours than last year.
Both the Target at Watertown Mall and The Home Depot at Arsenal Mall will open an hour earlier than they did last year, at 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. respectively. Outside the town, Kohl's stores will open at 3 a.m. and Walmarts at midnight.
Moreover, retailers are driving up their door-buster deals: Target is offering 25 time-sensitive specials on Friday, up from 11 last year – although these are dwarfed by Kohl's 400 early-bird bargains, 100 more than last year, which will run for an extra hour.
But as chain stores up the ante, pollsters and economists disagree over the extent to which consumer spending will follow suit.
On the one hand, retailers are hopeful for the holiday shopping season: The Retailers Association of Massachusetts predicts an increase of 4.3 percent in sales over last year's figures, and the National Retail Federation expects that holiday sales across the country will be 2.3 percent higher than in 2009.
Similarly, the International Council of Shopping Centers forecasts a 3 to 3.5 percent rise in chain-store sales at established locations – an improvement on the 2.3-percent increase in 2009, but still far from the 4.4-percent gains made in 2006 before the recession began, according to data from the Council.
Concerning Black Friday in particular, the organization commissioned a poll along with Goldman Sachs which found that 31 percent of U.S. households plan to shop the day after Thanksgiving compared to 26 percent in 2009.
On the other hand, a poll conducted by Suffolk University and The Boston Globe showed that Massachusetts consumers are not as optimistic as retailers: 92 percent of respondents said they planned to spend the same amount of money or less on gifts this year as compared to last year.
Since the fall of 2008, consumers have shown that they are willing to postpone purchases until late in the holiday shopping season, said Ken Perkins, founder of Retail Metrics Inc., an independent research firm in Swampscott.
"So many consumers are living paycheck to paycheck and they don't have a lot of discretionary income to be making purchases ahead of time," Perkins said, "so they're trying to (save) up as much as they possibly can for the last minute."
But rather than seeing a major drop in Black-Friday sales, Perkins forecasts "a significant lull" afterwards, until just before Christmas.
Black Friday ranks among the top two or three shopping days of the year, depending on what day of the week Christmas falls on, according to Perkins and the International Council of Shopping Centers.
"It sort of sets a tone for the remainder of the holiday shopping season," Perkins said.
Nevertheless, Patricia Stenson, general manager of Watertown Mall, said Black Friday does not carry the same meaning today as it did in the past, given retailers' perennial efforts to push back the start of the holiday shopping season to earlier and earlier dates.
"In years gone by, people used to never begin their Christmas shopping and their holiday shopping until that day," she said. "That is no longer the case."
Even the many pre-Black-Friday bargains at stores in November tend to blend in among the innumerable other specials that retailers have been running year-round since the recession began, Stenson said.
The downturn has forced retailers to offer the steep markdowns that we see today in the ever-increasing door-buster deals, according to Perkins.
Retailers frequently keep their plans for Friday a secret in order "to generate a buzz," said Lauren Higginson, marketing director for Arsenal Mall.
So far, most of Best Buy's upcoming bargains are "top-confidential information" and will not be fully disclosed until Thanksgiving Day, said Maria Ciampolillo, the operations manager of the Best Buy in Watertown Mall.
The company is previewing some offers on its website, however. For example, many video games will be sold at a 42-percent discount, and each store will sell only a limited number of them at this rate – hence the need to "bust" through the doors to get the product in time.
In fact, for the sake of safety and order, Best Buy employees will hand out tickets for select products to customers waiting in line outside stores before they open, according to the company's website.
Higginson said she could not comment on what security measures will be in place at Arsenal Mall to prevent shopper stampedes similar to the one that killed a Walmart employee in 2008, and intimated only that the mall generally steps up security during the holidays.
Watertown Mall will heighten security on Black Friday as well, Stenson said.
To manage the anticipated crowds, Target will deploy personnel in their parking lots prior to opening, hand out store maps and direct people through checkout lines to ensure "safety and speed," according to Tara Schlosser and Jenine Anderson, corporate spokespersons for Target.
Arsenal Mall will also offer amenities to the first 100 or so shoppers to arrive on Friday. Last year they dolled out water bottles and candy canes, Higginson said.