Retailers are working overtime to lure Black Friday shoppers with more bargains, longer hours and intense promotions.
And once secretive about blowout deals, retail chains are instead spreading the word earlier than ever, hoping to entice shoppers away from competitors at the mall and online.
Brick-and-mortar retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Best Buy Co. have unveiled Black Friday deals weeks before the day after Thanksgiving. Some chains have promoted pre-Black Friday deals and pushed online bargains. And to carry the momentum past Friday, many will be rolling out fresh deals into the weekend.
"Our strategy is offering more savings than ever before on Black Friday," said Greg Ahearn, chief marketing officer at Toys R Us Inc. in the U.S., which is planning more than 150 door-busters and more than 40 "mystery deals." "We'll have something for everybody and something for everyone's budget."
Hordes of bargain-sniffing shoppers are expected to turn out this year. As many as 152 million people plan to shop in stores or online over the long weekend, a 10% increase from 138 million shoppers a year earlier, the National Retail Federation estimated. Not included are estimates for Thanksgiving Day, a day when more stores plan to open right through midnight.
"There have been strong signs that say we should see an increase in shoppers heading to retailers on Black Friday, and historic levels of traffic occurring on that day," said Michael Brown, vice president in the retail and consumer practice at consulting firm A.T. Kearney Inc.
Malls and retailers hoping to cast the largest net for shoppers are increasingly expanding their hours into Turkey Day. About 80% of Old Navy stores will be open Thanksgiving Day, along with Kmart and most Wal-Marts. Toys R Us stores will open at 9 p.m. For the first time, Macy's Inc., Kohl's Corp. and Target Corp. will open their stores at midnight Thursday. Shoppers waiting in line at select Best Buy stores, also opening at midnight, can watch an outdoor screening of the film "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2."
In the Southland, three Westfield malls — in Culver City, Arcadia and West Covina — will open their doors for the first time at midnight, joining shopping centers such as Lakewood Center and the Shops at Montebello.
Retailers also plan to stagger deals throughout Black Friday and the weekend. Wal-Mart is offering discounts on toys, home and apparel starting at 10 p.m. Thursday, followed by electronics at midnight and additional discounts the next few days. After the first wave of door-busters on Thanksgiving, Toys R Us plans to serve up fresh discounts the next morning.
But industry watchers worry that many shoppers crowding malls or browsing online this weekend will be looky-loos with a tight grip on their wallets. After an onslaught of downbeat financial news, holiday shoppers will spend on average $704.18 this year, a $14 drop from last year, the retail federation estimates.
"The economy is lousy out there, and customers are more and more price-driven and trying to get good deals," said Liz Sweney, executive vice president at J.C. Penney Co., which will offer about 200 more door-busters this Black Friday compared with last year. "They are also taking their time, so they don't want to be rushed."
Many shoppers are like Jose Ramos, 36, a Black Friday veteran who plans to keep his eyes peeled for great bargains. The inventory clerk from Canoga Park typically drops a few hundred bucks on gadgets at Best Buy and Fry's Electronics on the day after Thanksgiving, but he resolved to slash his holiday budget this year.
"I'm nervous about the economy, and it's just smart not to waste money on things you don't need," Ramos said. "I like the crowds and the excitement of waiting in line, so I'll definitely still go, but I may not pick up the big-screen TV."
With the California unemployment rate at 11.7% and a topsy-turvy economy weighing on people's minds, there are concerns that November and December will prove to be modest shopping months. Holiday sales are expected to increase 2.8%, far lower than the 5.2% bump retailers enjoyed last year, the retail federation said.
Spending patterns on Black Friday can be a harbinger of things to come for the overall economy: Robust sales would be a shot in the arm for businesses, while sluggish spending could spell more weakness in the coming months, industry analysts say.
"Black Friday for most retailers represents only 10% of their total holiday business," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at the NPD Group. "However, it means a lot when it comes to momentum and understanding the psyche of consumers.... It's an indicator of the economy."
But it's not all doom and gloom. Cohen predicts that even budget-conscious people will tire of round-the-clock frugality and step into stores to buy something.
"Holidays are the time when consumers throw out all the rules about spending they've been abiding by for nine to 10 months of the year," Cohen said. "For some people coming out of the recession, the consumer is telling us this may be the first time they're stepping foot in a store in a year."
Despite scaling back on extras because of economic worries, secretary Kathy Sniffen, 46, looks forward to her annual Thanksgiving tradition. After turkey, she and her daughter check the papers, plot out which stores to hit and then take a quick snooze. This year, they may skip their nap in order to catch retailers opening at midnight Thanksgiving.
"I've been conservative with spending, but I'm definitely looking at a few things to buy for myself," Sniffen said. "It's OK to splurge a little on the holidays."