Although the traditional start to the holiday shopping season is still days away, Morgan Somerville has already mapped out her bargain-hunting strategy.
The student employment manager at Stevenson University will pass up Thanksgiving specials to focus on Black Friday deals for gifts and household items for her new Towson home. On Small Business Saturday, she'll help out at her mother's gift shop. Then on Cyber Monday, she'll watch email and social media for deep discounts from retailers such as Vera Bradley.
In a year marked by weak sales, tepid forecasts — and fewer days between Thanksgiving and Christmas — retailers are facing pressure to lure shoppers such as Somerville in the crucial period that can account for a fifth of a retailer's annual sales.
The taboo that limited shopping on Thanksgiving has been eroded steadily by retailers opening at midnight several years ago and then earlier and earlier. This year Kmart plans to start its holiday deals at 6 a.m., and other national chains will open as early as 4 p.m.
And though Black Friday remains the focus, marketers are carving growing niches for the following Saturday, Monday and Tuesday, extending promotions and discounts for shoppers as retailers and even nonprofits vie for their share of consumer spending. For the growing Small Business Saturday, local retailers are offering more promotions, and some Fells Point restaurants will give discounts to people who shop in the neighborhood. Retailers also will reach out to consumers in new ways, relying more on social media and even texting to promote deals.
"It's a phenomenon that's been building over the last few years, with the advent of growing online business and growth of mobility, and retailers trying to offer a seamless experience," said Renato Scaff, a managing director in the retail practice for consulting firm Accenture. The year is shaping up to be a "slow-growth, hypercompetitive environment where retailers know consumers have a finite wallet they're planning on spending."
Overall holiday retail sales are expected to rise modestly, according to most forecasts — by 2.4 percent according to ShopperTrak — but shoppers are expected to stick to budgets. They'll spread spending over Thanksgiving weekend or even the days before rather than spending more overall.
"Some years there are more or less shopping days, and sometime there are additional shopping Saturdays, but that doesn't make much difference," said John Talbott, associate director of the Center for Education and Research in Retailing at Indiana University. "The season is going to be what it's going to be in terms of economic capacity."
About 37 percent of consumers plan to spend less on holiday shopping compared to last year, a poll by financial services firm Edward Jones shows.
"I am shopping with caution," said Kim Turner, an information technology specialist at the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn who was furloughed in the recent government shutdown and worries it could happen again.
Turner plans to visit family on Thanksgiving, but will be out on Black Friday at Walmart or Best Buy looking for deals on a portable scanner.
This year, 38 percent of consumers plan to shop on Thanksgiving, either in stores or online, according to Accenture. The survey found that interest in Black Friday shopping is at a five-year high, with more than half of consumers planning to shop that day compared with 44 percent three years ago.
Retailers long competed to be the first to open on Black Friday but a few years ago began opening on Thanksgiving night. This year, Michaels will open at 4 p.m. on Thanksgiving; Toys 'R' Us opens at 5 p.m.; Walmart and Best Buy open at 6 p.m.; and Target, Sears, Macy's JCPenney and Kohl's open at 8 p.m. Some malls, such as Arundel Mills, open at midnight. Boscov's department stores will be open from 7 p.m. to midnight on Thanksgiving.
Going shopping on Thanksgiving is starting to appeal to Robin Jackson, a day care provider from Baltimore's Sandtown neighborhood who was shopping at Walmart in Port Covington on Friday, buying Imaginex toys for her 5-year-old grandson. She sees the holiday hours as an alternative to the Black Friday rush.
"I might try to get there before the traffic gets in there," she said of Thanksgiving shopping. Black Friday is "going to be a mess."
The newest twist this year may be the last-minute, pre-Black Friday sales that have popped up. Walmart announced a "pre-Black Friday" that started at 8 a.m. last Friday, promising steep discounts on some toys and electronics such as LeapPad 2 and Xbox One video games. The Disney Store launched its online deals the same day, the first time it did so the weekend before Thanksgiving, and plans to offer in-store and online deals all week starting Monday.
Eric Messercola arrived at Walmart too late Friday morning to find a LeapPad2. The White Marsh resident planned to try another Walmart and, if all else failed, let his wife look for the toy during an all-night shopping spree she plans for Thanksgiving night.
"She gets frustrated with the crowds and the people, but it's worth it for the deals," Messercola said.
The Thanksgiving openings have lured plenty of shoppers but turned others off, sparking a backlash from store workers and consumers who see it as cutting into a traditional American holiday.
Somerville doesn't like to shop at all on Thanksgiving and would stay away "even if they're giving away the store," but otherwise describes herself as a retailer's dream. On Black Friday, she hopes to get an early start in Easton, where she'll be for Thanksgiving.
"I've mapped out who has the best deals, it's down to Kohl's and Target," she said. "I thought I better get up at 6 a.m. and stock up on things. I'm excited. I need a whole lot of everything, and everything is on sale. I'm looking to clean up."
Somerville has a plan, but "I am sure that there will be other items that end up in the cart. That's part of the fun of shopping. I am half a planner, half a spontaneous buyer."
All told, between spending on herself and gifts, she's budgeted between $500 to $1,000, "which sounds crazy, but it's OK. I've been saving, so it will be fine."
On Saturday, Somerville plans to be on the other side of the counter as she helps at With Gratitude, a small Towson shop owned by her mother. The shop will take 20 percent off a single item for customers dressed in pajamas.
"Saturday is our day," said Somerville, noting that the shop used to hold its sale on Black Friday when "the men would get sent in but all the women were at the mall or the big-box stores."
By Cyber Monday, she still will be shopping, but at her computer, watching for the targeted emails and Facebook posts from retailers such as Coach, Lands' End and Under Armour.
"It doesn't get more convenient than that," she said. "It works. I spend my money with them."
Last year, 129 million consumers shopped online on Cyber Monday, according to the National Retail Federation, and this year online sales in November and December are expected to jump between 13 percent and 15 percent to as much as $82 billion, the retail trade group said.
The segmenting of Thanksgiving weekend shopping is growing as retailers try to appeal to different market groups, said Talbott, the Indiana retailing researcher.
"If you look at any retailer, they don't have a homogenous mix of consumers," Talbott said. "Some are more price-driven. Others are interested in special offers."
The Black Friday shopper, he said, is value-driven, regardless of the price bracket, while those who go out on Thanksgiving and into the early hours of Friday "are those that are shopping for sport. It's entertainment for a lot of these folks, and in some cases the desire and need to get the best possible value they can."
American Express started the idea of Small Business Saturday four years ago as a way to help independent shops capitalize on the weekend without competition from the national chains.
"It's a way to raise awareness around these smaller stores, which don't have the resources that the big guys do," Talbott said. "They're not after that value-driven consumer."
In the Baltimore area, a growing number of neighborhoods and shopping centers have joined in the day, some by banding together to coordinate events and advertising.
In Fells Point, business owners plan heavy social media promotions, and consumers who show they have shopped small can get discounts at restaurants such as Kooper's Tavern, Brick Oven Pizza, Slainte Irish Pub and Restaurant and Sofi's Crepes. In Pigtown, small businesses such as Nick's Rotisserie, 2 Chic Boutique, Tasty Creations Bakery and Al's Professional Cutsplan tours of their businesses along with discounts and special promotions.
Last year, consumers spent $5.5 billion at small businesses on the specially designated day, said Patricia Norins, a retail expert and adviser for the American Express Small Business Saturday initiative.
"The big-box stores have large marketing dollar budgets they can allocate to the weekend," Norins said. "This is a chance for small stores to compete on so many levels, but particularly on this weekend."
Another awareness-raising day, Giving Tuesday, is slowly becoming the Black Friday of philanthropy in a movement to create a national day of giving at the end of the spending splurge. Nonprofits such as Volunteers of America Chesapeake and Race Against Abuse of Children Everywhere are counting on the day to help them meet year-end fundraising goals.
"Rather than focusing all our energies on holiday sales and shopping, Giving Tuesday reminds us what the holidays are really about — caring for and sharing with others," said Kenneth Smith, founder of Baltimore-based RAACE.
Despite retailers' segmentation of the Thanksgiving weekend, no day is likely to replace Black Friday in importance, said Britt Beemer, chairman and CEO of America's Research Group in Charleston, S.C. It has been the top-selling day of the holiday season for a decade, according to ShopperTrak.
"It's so powerful and unique a day, and the deals are so good," Beemer said. For some sale items, "those are once-a-year deals. When they're gone, they're gone."
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