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HOLIDAY SHOPPING 2003

On Friday, It's Showtime

Retailers and shoppers gear up for the day after Thanksgiving, but it's not always an accurate barometer of how the season will unfold.

November 27, 2003|Leslie Earnest | Times Staff Writer

Dan Gutierrez arrives at the Sears in Del Amo Fashion Center about 6 a.m. and immediately begins walking the aisles.

The store manager is searching for what he calls "opportunities," ways to push more product onto the floor and clues about what is selling -- so he can sell more of it.

On this day, he notices that a stack of Hewlett-Packard laptops and printers that's normally chest high is shrinking. And he needs to get another 13-inch Disney brand TV set on the floor. And the pile of Sony CD/DVD players is dwindling.

"I have to make a mental note; we need more stock on this," Gutierrez said. "You get to find your dogs too: what isn't selling."

Along with retailers nationwide, Gutierrez's Sears store in Torrance is getting set for Friday, the official launch of the holiday shopping season. It's known as "Black Friday" in the industry because the day after Thanksgiving traditionally was the point in the year that retailers shifted from the "red" into the "black."

Gutierrez calls it "Showtime."

"It's only the best day of the year," he said, continuing his rounds. "This is what you train for. This is what you live for."

In one of America's weirder consumer rituals, die-hard shoppers will haul themselves out of bed Friday -- often before daybreak -- to fight for a parking place, elbow their way through crowds and plant themselves in long lines.

Although it's a key day for retailers, it's not necessarily a barometer of how the overall season will unfold. Last year, sales jumped a hearty 12.4% on the day after Thanksgiving, boosting merchants' hopes. But they were soon dashed.

"It fell off pretty dramatically after that," said Jason Milch, spokesman for ShopperTrak, a Chicago firm that monitors retail sales.

Ultimately, the 2002 holiday season was a miserable time for many retailers, with sales rising just 2.2% during the November-December period, the slowest growth in a decade. Sales at stores open at least a year, a key indicator of a company's health, increased only 1% last December, the slimmest increase in 30 years.

Most retail experts seem more optimistic about this year's prospects. The National Retail Federation, the industry's largest trade group, is projecting a 5.7% sales increase, or $217.4 billion in sales, citing recent positive indicators such as a government report this week that showed the economy grew 8.2% in the third quarter, the heftiest expansion since 1984.

But not all projections are upbeat.

A Conference Board survey of 5,000 households this month found that Americans were planning to spend an average of $455 on gifts during the holiday season, down from $483 in 2002. That would mean a 5% drop in sales compared with last year. Those queried in the Pacific region, which includes California, were among the most frugal, with plans to spend $409.

On the other hand, people often spend more than expected. "Consumers are cautious in making their budgets," said Lynn Franco, the New York-based group's research director, "but they do tend to exceed it."

Linda James of Fresno can hardly wait to throw herself into the fray. In what has become an annual ritual, the workers' compensation adjuster rises at 4:30 a.m. on the day after Thanksgiving. Within an hour, she's "ready to rock and roll," armed with a mug of coffee and a bargain-hunting game plan.

"It's worth it, trust me, it's worth it," said James, 53, who will be accompanied by her two daughters and one daughter's mother-in-law. Typically, they head first for Toys R Us and then hurry on to Michaels, Mervyn's and Target.

They'll have plenty of company. A survey released by the International Council of Shopping Centers on Tuesday found that 34% of those queried were planning to start their holiday shopping this weekend.

Whatever its fiscal importance -- and it varies year to year -- the Friday after Thanksgiving is "a very symbolic day," said Tom Holliday, an advertising and marketing expert for the retail federation. "Retailers are going to be out there competing with their best foot forward, really showing their cards."

One way they do that is by promoting hot items at slashed prices and "door buster" sales intended to get shoppers into stores early.

Of course, many retailers encourage people to begin shopping earlier. Last Friday, Macy's advertised a "get-ready sale" with markdowns up to 75%; Sears promoted a "great 3-day sale," slashing prices in half; and Robinsons-May trumpeted its "lowest prices of the season." Sporting goods chain Sportmart is taking 25% off any single item today for those who plan to start their Christmas shopping before Thanksgiving is over.

Many retailers keep their best deals under wraps until today so competitors can't promote the same products at even lower prices.

Elva Villalobos is waiting to plan her shopping day until she's pored over today's newspaper ads.

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