Early Openings Take Edge Off Black Friday Frenzy

(Los Angeles Times/MCT) -

When Nordstrom in Thousand Oaks, Calif., opened its doors Friday at 8 a.m., Chuck Pierson had been awake for more than two hours, after being dragged “kicking and groggily screaming” on his wife’s quest to find perfect shoes.

The only fate that could be worse? Joining the hordes of shoppers who swarmed into stores the night before.

“Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but Black Friday – fine,” said the nursing instructor, 65. “Black Thursday evening? I don’t think so.”

The annual Friday consumption extravaganza remains the busiest shopping event of the year, according to ShopperTrak. Americans turned out in droves to spend gift money, and hit up malls in the name of family tradition.

This time, though, crowds were smaller, as early Thanksgiving retail openings diluted some of the big shopping day’s chaos.

For merchants and economists anxiously watching sales numbers, the big unknown is how freely customers are willing to spend in the face of a weak job market and cuts to government aid programs.

Some stores rely on the year-end shopping season for as much as 40 percent of their annual revenue. The National Retail Federation estimates that total sales for the season will increase 3.9 percent to $602 billion this year – a boost that many analysts attribute to deep discounting, which would hurt profits.

Other forecasts are less rosy. Investment house Morgan Stanley predicts the worst holiday sales since 2008, when the U.S. economy was in recession. With consumer spending making up about 70 percent of U.S. economic activity, a lean season could have hefty repercussions.

“If the holiday season isn’t a good one, it’s saying something about consumers’ sentiment and their willingness to spend,” said RBC Capital Markets analyst Howard Tubin. “It’s the biggest purchasing catalyst of the year.”

A hyper-focused shopper is emerging, more resistant to impulse purchases and less patient with long lines and browsing, analysts said.

“Deal mania is alive and well,” said Thom Blischok, chief retail strategist for Booz & Co., who spent the past two days watching piles of crock pots and 700-thread-count sheets fly off shelves. “Sixty-five percent of Americans are survivalists, living paycheck to paycheck, and they’re looking for every way possible to save money.”

For some, it’s worth a fight.

In Rialto, Calif., authorities said, a police officer suffered a fractured right hand and finger Thursday night while trying to separate two brawling men at a Wal-Mart. In Illinois, a police officer responding to shoplifting reports at a Kohl’s store shot and wounded the driver of a car that was dragging another police officer, police said. And in Virginia, authorities said, a skirmish over a Wal-Mart parking spot led one man to stab another in the arm.

Wal-Mart said its Black Friday results were “record-breaking,” with more than 22 million shoppers on Thanksgiving and nearly 400 million page views on Walmart.com. Target said Thanksgiving brought shoppers “in unprecedented numbers.”

Online sales were strong on Thanksgiving, rising 19.7 percent from Thanksgiving last year, according to IBM Digital Analytics Benchmark.

Shopping, however, won’t be consistent throughout the season.

“Be on the lookout for a steep lull in sales over the next two weeks as consumers catch their breath while waiting for their wallets to be replenished,” NPD analyst Marshal Cohen wrote in an online post.