On Black Friday, shoppers are wrapped up in scrimping or caught up in splurging

When retailers tally the results of what is expected to be a lackluster start to the holiday shopping season, they are likely to find that the numbers reflect people like Billy Robinson.

Robinson was among the millions of shoppers seeking deep discounts this Thanksgiving weekend. He is helping support his adult daughter, who recently lost her job, so his paycheck as a security guard must stretch further, Robinson said. He can’t risk missing the sales.

“I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do,” Robinson said as he scoured a Kmart in Oxon Hill, Md. “It’s just a little tighter.”

But there will also be plenty of people like Asim Safdar of Gainesville, Va.

The 22-year-old college student wasn’t hunting for discounts as he roamed Tysons Corner Center with two friends on Black Friday.

“I was going to shop anyway,” said Safdar, who had scooped up a jacket at Armani Exchange and was on the hunt for T-shirts, dress shirts and jeans to refresh his wardrobe before his honeymoon in Venice.

These contrasting approaches to the annual shopping ritual — for Robinson, a much-needed penny-saving opportunity, and for Safdar, a diversion centered on spontaneous splurges — reflect the uneven tenor of the nation’s economic recovery and have economists worried.

As the housing market improves and stock markets soar near all-time highs, the recovery might appear to upper-income Americans to be steadily chugging along, even if it is not in overdrive.

But stagnant wages, cuts to food-stamp programs and a weak job market are making for a tougher atmosphere for middle- and lower-income consumers, many of whom are spending cautiously and hunting for deals in a climate that some say still feels like a recession.

“The mood overall from the consumer perspective is, it really depends upon where you are among the economic landscape,” said James Russo, senior vice president of global consumer insights at Nielsen. For upper-income Americans, he said, there’s a feeling that we’re “definitely headed in the right direction.” But for others, a sense of caution abounds.

The result is that many consumers are being left behind by the recovery, economists say. Although the nation’s unemployment rate slid to 7.3 percent in October from 7.9 percent a year earlier, that number is pushed down by people who have stopped looking for work, they say.

“I think we have a growing group of consumers who are going to be very careful with their spending, as much because of their anxiety as because they don’t have as much disposable income,” said Stephen Fuller, the economist who directs the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University.

Kmart shopper Catherine Fogle, 55, said the Black Friday sales were the only way she could afford gifts for two children and six grandchildren. “I’m trying to be realistic here,” said Fogle, a mail processor for the federal government.

The recent government shutdown and budget cuts tied to the sequester also weighed on some shoppers.

Robert Lee, who owns a cybersecurity contracting business, said the shutdown had made him and his employees think about their holiday shopping budgets. Ultimately, Lee splurged on a pair of Cole Haan shoes while browsing sales at the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City in Arlington.

“Mentally, it did [affect me],” Lee said of the budget cuts. “But you get caught up in the holidays.”

The differing moods about the economy are also seen in the contrasting expectations of retailers this holiday season.

Discount retailers have been pushing the boundaries, opening earlier than ever and warning that deep discounts could squeeze profits. Department store Kohl’s is forecasting that its fourth-quarter sales will be “flat to down 2 percent” from the same period last year. Wal-Mart has forecast a “relatively flat” fourth quarter.

Meanwhile, luxury retailers have largely shrugged off the pressure to open their doors Thanksgiving Day. Tiffany & Co. has said it is “well positioned” for the season. Michael Kors is expecting same-store sales growth — revenue from established stores compared with a year ago — between 15 and 20 percent in the quarter that includes the holidays.

“We’ve seen a bit of a resurgence over the past 12 months in luxury spending,” said Jesse Tron, a spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Across the Washington region, Black Friday appeared to be less frenzied than in past years. At Bloomingdale’s in Chevy Chase’s Friendship Heights neighborhood, salespeople outnumbered shoppers about 8:30 a.m., even though the department store had opened at 7 a.m. and was offering special discounts to early shoppers. Parking spots were plentiful in a nearby garage.

Small clusters of shoppers crowded around displays of $5 children’s pajamas and $12 pillows at Target in Hyattsville on Friday morning. But a display of discounted TVs remained largely untouched.

“I’m surprised at how empty it is today,” said Shema Kabe, 28, who had stopped by the store about 10:30 a.m. to purchase a DVD player.

Still, lighter foot traffic on Black Friday is not necessarily an indication of how sales will shape up overall. It could be that some shoppers stayed home and hunted for sales online. Bargain hunters might have also jumped on sales that began Thanksgiving Day.

Candi Tran and Brittney Moore, both of Sterling, Va., were among those who pushed their yearly shopping expedition to Thursday evening. The duo, who were at Tysons Corner, has been shopping together every Thanksgiving weekend for several years, but buying Christmas gifts for their families wasn’t the first item on the agenda.

“Tonight is a ‘me’ night,” Moore said.

Abha Bhattarai, Lori Aratani and Amrita Jayakumar contributed to this report.

Sarah Halzack is a reporter and Web editor for Capital Business. She covers the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. Previously, she was a Web producer for the Post's daily business and economic news section. She occasionally writes for other sections at the Post, most frequently in the form of dance reviews, dance features, book reviews and obituaries.
Jeremy Borden covers Prince William County, Va., for The Washington Post.
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