Stores Gird for Critical Weekend
Early Promotions Aimed at Luring Reluctant Shoppers

By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 27, 2008

The moment of truth for retailers in this unhappy holiday season arrives tomorrow when they open their doors for the marathon of shopping known as Black Friday.

The day after Thanksgiving is the traditional kickoff to the holiday shopping season, when retailers can ring up as much as half of their annual sales. But the past few months have not brought glad tidings, with retail sales plummeting along with consumer spending. Stores are counting on a strong showing over the next few days to build momentum to carry them through Christmas.

Black Friday could signal that "Hey, it's okay to spend again. You don't have to be totally hunkered down," said Craig R. Johnson, president of consulting firm Customer Growth Partners. "There is a certain amount of psychology to it."

The battle for sales -- and in some cases survival -- is expected to start early. Many outlet malls, including Potomac Mills in Woodbridge and even the Disney Store, will throw on the lights at 12 a.m. By the time many big-box chains open at 5 a.m., shoppers may be downright drained.

Wal-Mart plans to offer several Internet-only deals today, such as a $20 Bluetooth headset. Tomorrow, shoppers can visit stores to score one of its most touted products, a $128 Blu-ray disc player.

Macy's stores will open tomorrow at 5 a.m. with more than 200 promotions, including a $99 two-carat diamond bracelet and a luggage set for $50. The department store chain said it would also give away samples and coupons for Ocean Spray, which will have a float in Macy's iconic Thanksgiving Day parade for the first time.

Rival J.C. Penney is starting even earlier, at 4 a.m. TV ads airing today will show eager shoppers tailgating with leftover turkey in the store parking lot as they wait for the doors to open.

"Given the current economic environment, J.C. Penney understands the issues facing our customers, and we are committed to offering the season's most affordable gifts at an extraordinary level of style and quality," said Ken C. Hicks, chief merchandising officer.

BJ's Wholesale Club said it would offer more than $3,000 worth of coupons and is focusing its assault on electronics. Even Office Depot is playing the game, opening at 6 a.m. with discounts on GPS navigation systems and digital photo frames.

But it remains to be seen whether such aggressive discounting will be enough to get shoppers out of their beds tomorrow.

The National Retail Federation, a trade group, estimated this week that the number of likely shoppers on Black Friday and through the weekend will decline this year to 128 million, compared with 135 million last year. NRF spokeswoman Kathy Grannis said some consumers are simply not in the hunt this year.

"Some people will be looking for more personal and practical gifts that won't be flying off the shelves at 5 a.m.," she said. "They can really go anytime."

Fewer customers could mean fiercer competition both on price and service. Best Buy is offering customers who won a contest to become a VIP shopper for a day free massages before they hit the stores. J.C. Penney is planning a 20 percent increase in the number of specials. Target opens at 6 a.m. and is advertising a $299 26-inch flat panel TV.

Many retailers, however, did not wait for Black Friday to begin the holiday discounting.

Wal-Mart began cutting prices on popular toys in early October, forcing Toys R Us and Target to follow suit. Later in the month, Sears became the first major retailer whose Black Friday ads were leaked to the Internet, and it responded by adding additional unannounced deals that will be unveiled tomorrow. It also began holding weekly blockbuster promotions with sister chain Kmart. J.C. Penney was advertising "the biggest sale of them all" and opening stores early at the start of the month.

Though such promotions can help retailers drive traffic to their stores, they also eat into their profits -- and some experts said they prompt customers to simply hold out for the best deal of all.

According to a survey released yesterday by consulting firm Deloitte, about 45 percent of shoppers said they plan to purchase gifts later in the year in hopes of getting a better price. And 62 percent of shoppers said the presents that they have bought were all or mostly on sale.

"If people really came back out to the stores and spent, I think that will generate some positive energy around the holiday season," said Stacy Janiak, U.S. retail leader at Deloitte. "I think if the reverse were true, it may be ugly. That's why I'm telling everyone to go shopping."

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