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Deal time

The Baltimore Sun

The economy may be forcing consumers to pull back on spending overall, but it is not expected to stop people from braving long lines and crowds for today's post-Thanksgiving deals.

The hope from retailers is that customers will open their wallets and spend.

Price-conscious shoppers worried about rising utility and food prices and falling home values are expected to crowd stores today in larger numbers than in recent years as they look for the best bargains, according to retail experts. And then there are shoppers who see Black Friday, called such because it was long responsible for putting merchants' ledgers in the black, as a sport and tradition that can't be missed, even amid a weak economy.

Retailers, who have seen weak sales despite offering holiday deals well before Halloween, are ready for them all with plans to offer some of the steepest discounts ever, analysts said. While today isn't necessarily the biggest shopping day of the year anymore, since the weekend before Christmas usually tops most sales, it helps set the mood for the rest of the season. And right now retailers hope to reverse a sentiment among shoppers not to spend.

"More people tell us they're going to be in the store," said Greg Daugherty, executive editor at Consumer Reports. "Now whether they will buy anything is the question."

More than a quarter of consumers plan to go shopping today, up 5 percentage points from the 21 percent that shopped on Black Friday last year, according to a survey by Consumer Reports. But not as many consumers may visit merchants during the next few days: The National Retail Federation said as many as 128 million people will shop throughout the weekend, down from 135 million last year.

There is plenty at stake for retailers who already are seeing a slowdown. The retail trade group expects the holiday season, when most retailers ring up the bulk of their sales, will be the worst since 2002, with business increasing just 2.2 percent, well below the 10-year average increase of 4.4 percent. Others predict that sales could decline for the season.

Some retail experts say the danger for merchants today is that shoppers will buy the doorbuster deals, but nothing else.

"Black Friday is to get you in and then you buy the other stuff," said Randy Allen, associate dean for corporate relations at Cornell University's Johnson School of Business, who once worked for Kmart. "I think what you're going to see happening this year is the buying of the other stuff isn't going to happen as much. They're going to get the deals, but if they see something else and it's not a deal, they're waiting to see if it goes on sale later."

A survey of 100 chief marketing officers at major retailers conducted by BDO Seidman LLP indicated that Black Friday sales would increase 1.2 percent this year. Most of the executives thought their sales would be flat for the day.

Retailers might not be able to persuade shoppers like Tiffany Venable to spend. Venable, 24, goes out every year with three carloads of family members for Black Friday. As someone who buys gifts throughout the year, Venable said she has finished most of her holiday shopping.

"It's just the experience of being out there with the family," said Venable, a debt collector from Baltimore who was shopping at Best Buy in White Marsh recently.

Tina Bauer, on the other hand, is looking for the bargains. Every year, she scours the sale circulars on Thanksgiving Day and maps out a plan for what stores to hit throughout the day. She also surfs the Internet for leaked Black Friday deals. Last year, she visited several different Best Buy stores to see which ones had the shorter lines. She expects to visit one again today as she shops for a Nikon Coolpix digital camera, which is supposed to be on sale.

"I'll be somewhere when the doors open," said Bauer, a 41-year-old leasing consultant who lives in Bel Air. She shopped at Best Buy in White Marsh this week, comparing the price of a laptop computer that she hopes goes on sale soon.

Retailers are cautious about estimating how big the crowds will be this year, but say they're discounting as never before.

"I don't have a crystal ball to predict how many shoppers will be waiting outside our store...," said E.R. Anderson, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. But "we believe we will be well-positioned for this economy."

Wal-Mart is offering deals today and tomorrow on things like $8 jeans and a Magnavox Blu-ray disc player for $128. J.C. Penney said that it will have some of the most "compelling" Black Friday prices in the company's history, with 400 specials - 20 percent more than last year.

Kohl's will stay open until midnight tonight and said it will offer discounts on more than 300 items, a significant increase from last year. Toys are 50 percent off, and designer brands such as Simply Vera by Vera Wang are discounted 40 percent to 50 percent.

Retail experts said Black Friday is typically a good day to get deals on electronics, appliances and other big-ticket items, which should help drive consumers to the stores. BJ's Wholesale Club, for instance, advertised a 42-inch LCD HDTV for $679.99. "Consumers know that Black Friday is a special retail day," said Britt Beemer, owner of America's Research Group, which tracks consumer shopping trends. "And consumers also know that no retailer is going to ask you to come out at 4 a.m. to give you nothing."

Most of the deeply discounted items are limited and typically sell out in minutes to shoppers who spend the night waiting for such deals. But most retailers offer other discounts throughout the weekend to lure customers in each day.

Even so, many analysts expect consumers will gamble and wait until later in the season to buy apparel and other items, hoping those items will be discounted even more then.

Despite the shopping tradition and discounts traditionally offered today, some consumers aren't interested in taking on the crowds regardless of the deals. "I'm afraid," joked Tarento Brown, 37, who works for the Kennedy Krieger Institute. "It's too many people. Too much hustle and bustle to get a bargain."

And Brown, who plans to shop online and buy several gift cards, expects to spend less on presents this year in light of the economy.

Joe Piper, 50, believes that any bargains offered today aren't worth the headaches that come with the crowds. There are good-enough deals to be had at other times of the year, he said. Piper bought a 40-inch Samsung LCD HDTV for $799 while visiting the White Marsh Best Buy this week.

"I'm here now to beat the crowds," said Piper, a construction superintendent who lives in Edgemere.

Gloria Maruffi, 53, expected to make her first Black Friday shopping trip this morning. Her 16-year-old son, Michael Staskowiak, has always wanted to experience the crowds. Since he wants big-ticket Christmas presents, like a laptop, she thought it would a good time to find some deals, too.

"I must be crazy to do it," said Maruffi, who lives in Perry Hall. "But hopefully I'll find some bargains."

Shopping tips

* Get organized - make a list and comparison shop

* Don't pay for holiday gifts with credit cards or loans from payday lenders

* Know the return policy

* Be careful buying gift cards from stores that could go out of business

* Eschew extended guarantees for consumer products

* Read the fine print on trial offers or subscription-based gifts

* Protect yourself from identity theft - buy online only from established retailers, notify your bank of unauthorized charges

* Be sure to have all terms of a purchase in writing - don't rely on oral agreements

* Consider shipping and handling as part of the price before you select a product

* Avoid bogus or inefficient charities, such as those that spend more on administrative costs

Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition

ONLINE

Check out our online coverage today of the holiday shopping season with articles about the economy and tips for finding deals today and throughout the season. We're also inviting readers to provide feedback through our Twitter widget, so you can talk about your plans, deals you're finding and sites you're using most often to plan your shopping. You can find the coverage at www.baltimoresun.com/holidayshopping

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