Calm Black Friday surprises shoppers in the D.C. region

November 29, 2013

Shoppers in the D.C. region were surprised at how calm retail outlets were on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, which is the traditional kickoff of the holiday shopping season and normally one of the biggest retail sales days of the year.

“Compared to other Black Fridays, this was a breeze,” said Donna Thomas of Silver Spring. Thomas and her 12-year-old son had stopped by a Wal-Mart in Hyattsville Friday morning for a new 42-inch TV. “It seems like everybody already did their shopping last night.”

Thomas may be right. With retailers opening stores on Thanksgiving Day — Kmart opened at 6 a.m. on Thursday — Black Friday may be losing its appeal as the day to score the best deals.

Analysts said several factors could be contributing to the relatively light foot traffic: “What we’re noticing is this, and it’s not a surprise: One, the cyber-sales are ramping up much sooner than cyber-Monday. The second factor is many of the chain stores were open, depending on state law, on Thanksgiving,” said Chris Christopher, director of consumer insights at IHS Global Insights.

This holiday season, the battle for consumers’ dollars has shifted to the Web — specifically mobile devices. According to the IBM Digital Analytics Benchmark, overall online sales on Thanksgiving are up 19.7 percent in 2013 over the same period last year.

Mobile traffic, which includes cellphones and tablets, accounted for 42.6 percent of all online traffic, up more than 32 percent compared to the same period last year. Mobile sales remained strong, reaching 25.8 percent of all online sales, up 49 percent year-over-year, according to IBM Digital Analytics Benchmark.

Washington was among the top five metropolitan areas for online shopping, behind New York, Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Angelica Talan was among the shoppers feeding that trend. For the first time in about a decade, Talan did not brave the November cold for the holiday sales.

She stayed in bed Thursday, hunting for discounts using the more than 50 new shopping apps she had download onto her iPad. By noon, she had hit pay dirt, snagging a gift for her sister at a deep discount.

“I decided not to fight the crowds this year,” said Talan, who runs the blog Clarendon Moms.

But there were no crowds to struggle through at the Pentagon City mall in Arlington. At 8:30 am on Friday, the Microsoft store had a handful of people milling about, trying out the new Xbox console. A floor above, the Apple store, which opened at 6 a.m., was filled with holiday shoppers. But for the number of people browsing, there were more than enough store associates, each dressed in red and handing out gift guides at the door.

Maya Jones, 36, and her husband Ryan were taking a break from shopping on a bench in the mall. The accountants from Arlington had just finished buying clothes from The Children’s Place for their four kids, as well as nieces and nephews.

Jones said she was a regular Black Friday shopper, and they were planning to visit the Old Navy and Target stores in Falls Church next. Jones said she didn’t mind stores opening on Thanksgiving, because it reduced the crowds on Black Friday.

Upscale retailers, such as Bloomingdale’s and Lord and Taylor in Friendship Heights in Northwest Washington, also were quiet. Despite opening its doors at 7 a.m. and offering special discounts to early shoppers (an extra 30 percent off already marked down women’s shoes until 1 p.m., 25 percent off some women’s dresses) salespeople still outnumbered shoppers at Bloomingdale’s at around 8:30 a.m.

The atmosphere in Lord and Taylor, which opened at 5 a.m., was quite civilized — a far cry from the frenzy that sometimes accompanies Black Friday shopping specials. Shoppers were in festive moods. Many carried bags already filled with holiday purchases — some for others but many for them.

Farrokh Rahiminejad, of Bethesda, juggled at least a half dozen sweaters, tops and jeans with her left arm as she perused the racks in the children’s section at Lord and Taylor. In her right hand, she had a yellow measuring tape, holding it up to each garment to ensure it would work for one of her four nieces and nephews.

She’d come to the store earlier in the week to do some advanced scouting but waited until Friday to make her purchases hoping the discounts would be better.

“I prefer shopping here,” she said. “There are good sales.”

By 9:45 a.m. Margaret Harris of Bethesda already was headed for the parking garage, having snagged three new sweaters she could add to her work wardrobe. Harris, a Smithsonian volunteer, had come in looking for a New Year’s party dress but even with many of the store’s sparkliest party frocks marked down (with additional markdowns on the sale prices) she came up empty.

Parking in garages in the neighborhood, home to a Red Line Metro stop, was still plentiful. Whole Foods hoped to capitalize on the early shopping crowd, offering free coffee to shoppers who purchased breakfast.

Overall, the National Retail Federation expects retail sales to be up 4 percent to $602 billion during the last two months of the year, according to the Associated Press. That’s higher than last year’s 3.5 percent growth, but below the 6 percent pace seen before the recession. Analysts expect sales to be generated at the expense of profits, as retailers will likely have to do more discounting to get people into stores.

Back at the Wal-Mart in Hyattsville, much of the store was empty — there were no shoppers in the women’s clothing department or in the grocery aisles — but dozens had lined up for electronics and discounted tires that went on sale at 8 a.m.

“I came here just for the tires, and then I’m leaving,” said Carmella Smith, of Hyattsville. “I refuse to go to the rest of the store. I usually do my Christmas shopping at the last minute.”

Jose Modest arrived at the store shortly after 7 a.m, and was surprised that there was no crowd. She wasn’t interested in any of the Black Friday sales, and was there for more mundane items: lotion, socks and a coffee grinder. “It’s not anything special,” she said. “Just regular items.”

She had already done her share of holiday shopping online earlier in the week when she bought six tablets — one for herself and the rest for relatives.

“I bought one, and then the price went down a little bit so I bought me some more,” she said of the tablets she bought at Walmart.com.

At the Target store in Prince George’s County, small clusters of shoppers crowded around displays of $5 children’s pajamas and $12 pillows. But a display of discounted TVs remained largely untouched Friday morning.

“I’m surprised at how empty it is today,” said Shema Kabe, 28, of Silver Spring who had stopped by for a DVD player.

“There are no people,” said Lucina Quintanilla, who lives in Hyattsville and was shopping with her daughter. “It’s good. I like it better this way.”

Friends Walker Hamby and David Remington out shopping in Friendship Heights, were unimpressed by some of the “Black Friday” sales being offered by retailers. Some, they said, didn’t really seem like sales at all.

A stop at Bloomingdales was unproductive — “still too expensive” said Remington.

JCrew?

“Basically the same sales they’d have during a regular week,” Remington responded.

“The sales aren’t that great,” he said. “and it’s not that crowded.”

But the men did score what they said were true bargains at Nordstrom Rack. Hamby, who works for a marketing research firm, found two pairs of $70 gloves marked down to $35 each. Remington, who works in real estate, bought a $100 pair of Nike sneakers for $35.

And they were game to do more shopping.

Sarah Halzack contributed to this report.

Abha Bhattarai covers local banking, retail and hospitality for The Washington Post’s Capital Business section.
Lori Aratani writes about how people live, work and play in the D.C. region for The Post’s Transportation and Development team.
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