Holiday sales start early, but crowds still expected for Black Friday

Holiday shopping doesn’t “officially” kick off until the day after Thanksgiving, but that hasn’t stopped Patricia Peltz from buying gifts well before Black Friday.

The North Baltimore resident, who bought clothes for her sister earlier this week at Kohl’s in Timonium, is among shoppers taking advantage of “early access” and “Black Friday Now” deals, many of which have been out there since at least mid-November.

“I’ve been scouring the pages to see what’s going to go on sale,” said Peltz, 62, who plans to buy electronics and gift cards for two college-age sons. “I did online shopping already, and I have quite a few gifts already at home that I found on sale.”

As retailers compete for as much as $720 billion in expected spending this season, a 4.8 percent jump over last year, they are aggressively pursuing customers with deep discounts and early promotions. Most still are counting on big crowds and heavy web traffic on Black Friday, which, in an age of online buying and Thanksgiving Day doorbusters, has lost some significance but remains a peak day for business.

“This is one of the biggest aspects of our entire year,” said Bryan Vance, co-manager of the Walmart store in Cockeysville. “We’ve been planning and preparing a year out. Every year we take into consideration what we did in previous years and look for ways to make it easier.”

Check out The Baltimore Sun's guide to the holidays »

Last year, the day after Thanksgiving ranked as the top shopping day of the year, both in stores and online, based on average spending per buyer, according to The NPD Group. It was followed by the Saturday before Christmas in stores and Cyber Monday, typically the Monday after Thanksgiving, for e-commerce. Thanksgiving Day itself came in third on both fronts.

“Deals start earlier and earlier every year,” said Louryn Strampe, deals editor of Thrifter, a website that tracks retail promotions. “You don’t have to wait until Black Friday any more.”

The final two months of the year can be a make-it-or-break-it time for stores at a time of continued store closures. This year Sears, Mattress Firm, Nine West, Brookstone and Claires filed for bankruptcy. Toys R Us filed last year.

The National Retail Federation says improvements in the economy and consumer confidence will fuel holiday spending. The retail group is forecasting a sales bump of between 4.3 percent and 4.8 percent, better than the average annual increase of 3.9 percent over the past five years. Sales in November and December last year totaled $687.8 billion, a 5.3 percent jump over 2016 and the biggest increase since 2010.

“For the consumers who are shopping the most, which are millennials, this is the first time since the recession they’ve had extra money… and finally feel comfortable to spend a little more,” said Ana Serafin Smith, a retail federation spokeswoman.

But one marketing expert believes such rosy predictions may be overblown, because of recent dips in the stock market and heavy promotions under the Black Friday banner, even some over the summer.

“Retailers have ruined much of the mystery and intrigue of Black Friday,” said Ronald Goodstein, a marketing professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. “All they are doing is getting people to buy earlier. Retailers have trained us to buy only on sale and are offering sales so often and calling them sales for Black Friday when they’re not. It will ruin the impact of Black Friday itself.”

Retailers say they’re reacting to consumers’ demanding to shop when and where they want, whether in person or via mobile phones. Many are stepping up efforts to make in-store and online experiences more seamless. More are offering options such as buy online, pick up in store, and consumers are taking them up on it.

Shopping that way, for holiday or not, appeals to Peltz, particularly at stores such as Kohl’s, Target and Walmart.

“It’s fabulous,” Peltz said. “Then I can take it home, try it on, but I don’t have to worry about looking through all the sizes, and then if I don’t want it, I just bring it back the next time I’m in the neighborhood.”

Besides competing on price, stores are looking for an edge by offering easier in-store experiences. Walmart will station store employees in electronics and lawn and garden departments and elsewhere around the store to check out merchandise and, starting on Thanksgiving, will offer digital store maps through its mobile app to help shoppers find specific items. Target has similar offerings.

“It’s a great way for customers to save time,” Vance said. “It’s an absolutely faster shopping experience.”

Retailers are expected to benefit this year from the calendar, with the longest period possible between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Thanksgiving retail openings have become routine, and this year Sears, Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods will open at 6 p.m., Best Buy, DSW, Kohl’s, Target and Macys will open at 5 p.m. and JC Penney will open at 2 p.m. Kmart will open at 6 a.m.

But dozens of chains are shying away from that trend. Barnes & Noble, Burlington, BJ’s Wholesale Club, Crate and Barrel, H&M, Ikes, Nordstrom and Pier 1 Imports all will stay closed on Thanksgiving. As in past years, TJX Cos. stores, such as T.J. Maxx, Marshalls, HomeGoods and Homesense, will be closed on Thanksgiving, with most opening at 7 a.m. Friday.

“We consider ourselves an associate-friendly company and we are pleased to give associates the time to enjoy Thanksgiving with family and friends,” Debra McConnell, a spokeswoman for TJX, said in an email.

REI is continuing its tradition of remaining closed on Black Friday and encouraging its customers to #optoutside.

Staying closed on the holiday is a business decision, “but very much controlled by the consumers,” Smith said. “If the consumer is not demanding that, they won’t do it… But all of these retailers have websites, and their websites are not closed.”

Walmart’s Black Friday deals start online after 10 p.m. Wednesday. A round of in-store doorbusters starts at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving on limited supply, discounted items such as toys, game consoles and TVs. Walmart will be handing out bracelets to customers who line up inside stores.

Consumers expect to spend $693 on average, according to NPD’s Holiday Retail outlook. More than three quarters of consumers plan to do at least some shopping online.

Apparel and footwear, toys and electronics are expected to be the top purchase categories, according to a survey of 1,000 shoppers by consulting firm A.T. Kearney. Nearly three-quarters of shoppers expect to buy clothing and shoes; more than half expect to buy toys, electronics or both. Fewer than half plan to buy home, kitchen, jewelry and accessories, and fewer than a quarter are planning to buy sports equipment.

Erin Medairy, a Towson nanny for two families who plans to buy a lot of toys, expects a more challenging experience this year without Toys R Us.

“It’s definitely harder, [without] a toy store that’s just toys and has everything you need,” she said.

The 28-year-old said she shops Amazon occasionally, but mostly goes to stores in person.

“I like seeing it and knowing what it is,” Medairy said.

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

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