One last spree before buckling down

When giving is central to the celebration, scaling back could take practice

Reggie Mullins and daughter, Chloe, headed out for Black Friday bargains at midnight. With a job loss, the budget is tighter this year.
Reggie Mullins and daughter, Chloe, headed out for Black Friday bargains at midnight. With a job loss, the budget is tighter this year. (Tracy A. Woodward/the Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 28, 2009

Reggie Mullins has braved the Black Friday crowds with her daughter, Chloe, almost every year since the college junior was 8. This year, they once again awoke in darkness and left Dad asleep at home in Alexandria for a rare mother-daughter shopping spree at Potomac Mills where they could talk clothes, boys and bargains.

But this Friday, there was a new, burdensome topic of conversation: unemployment. The commercial real estate firm where Mullins works is going out of business Dec. 31, putting her among the nearly 16 million Americans who are out of a job, the highest rate in more than two decades. The date loomed in the background of the midnight trek through the outlet center in Woodbridge, as the countdown to Christmas becomes a steady march toward unemployment.

"Right now," Mullins said, "I would tell you on my Christmas list is to have a job."

Double-digit unemployment has stifled the desire to shop, and retailers fear it could derail the all-important holiday season, which accounts for roughly 40 percent of the industry's annual revenue. People are expected to spend an average of $638 this Christmas, near last year's record low, according to a Gallup survey.

Black Friday is supposed to help dispel such mood-killers. Stores throw open their doors before dawn to welcome customers with discounts and chirpy holiday music. About 134 million people are expected to have gone shopping by Sunday night, according to an industry forecast, up 5 percent from last year as people succumb to the thrill of a deal. And for at least one long weekend, Mullins can grant herself license to indulge in a little retail therapy.

"Sometimes -- I've learned this the hard way -- you can't sweat it," she said.

Their day, or rather, very long night, began at midnight when they rushed the doors at Saks Fifth Avenue's Off 5th outlet store at Potomac Mills for a 30 percent discount on everything. Chloe sped toward a checked BCBG summer dress. Mullins gravitated to the price tag: $47 after the discount. Sold. But the frilly blouse that her daughter held up next?

"First of all, this is not a top, it's a dress," Chloe explained.

"Party dresses are not a priority," Mullins said.

"They are of utmost importance," Chloe protested, though she put the blouse/dress back.

In the past, Mullins might have bought it later as a surprise. She typically spent about $800 on gifts for Chloe without too much thought. This year, like many other shoppers, she cut the budget, to $500. According to a survey by America's Research Group, about 77 percent of shoppers reported feeling pressured by debt, and 65 percent of those consumers said they plan to spend less.

"I said, we're not playing keeping up with the Joneses," Mullins said. "We can't."

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