Black Friday is the unofficial start to the holiday shopping season, but retailers have already been working for months to try to get a piece of your spending, with plans to open earlier, a more intense focus on online shopping and deals that last longer than ever.
Retailers have some reasons to be optimistic this year: The National Retail Federation is forecasting a “healthy” 4.1 percent increase in consumer spending from last year, to almost $617 billion. That would be higher than last year’s 3.1 percent increase, and above the last decade’s average year-to-year increase of 2.9 percent.
But though unemployment has continued to fall and gas prices have plummeted, wages haven’t grown nationally, and NRF president Matthew Shay said he expects “shoppers will be extremely price sensitive.”
Here are some ways retailers are hoping to lure you to spend more this year.
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1. Opening even earlier on Thanksgiving.
Once again, retailers have pushed into once-sacred turkey territory on Thanksgiving: Radio Shack is opening at 8 a.m., Best Buy at 5 p.m., Target and Macy’s at 6 p.m., to name a few. That’s earlier than ever for these retailers, and most malls are opening earlier too.
Experts describe it as an escalating arms race, in which no one wants to be undercut by a rival opening earlier. Just a few years ago, most stores didn’t open until the early-morning hours of Black Friday. But analysts question how much the earlier openings are really contributing to retailers’ bottom lines.
“The reality is we’re just stealing dollars from Black Friday and putting them in Thanksgiving,” said Bill Martin, CEO of ShopperTrak, which tracks store visits and spending. “It’s not this big windfall day,” he said of Thanksgiving.
While sales on Thanksgiving Day shot up 219 percent last year, to $2.5 billion, sales on Black Friday fell 13 percent, to $9.7 billion, Martin said. Stores also typically have to pay workers more to work on Thanksgiving, which can eat into profit margins.
Some retailers have made a point of staying closed on Thanksgiving, scoring public relations points. Costco made a point of saying that it’s not opening until Friday because employees deserve a rest, and outdoor sporting goods store Cabela’s said it would “uphold the company’s tradition” and remain closed on Thanksgiving.
2. Turning to the old standby: Doorbusters.
Despite the changes that have swept Black Friday and Thanksgiving Day shopping in the past few years, stores are still counting on flashy doorbuster deals (a discount so steep people will wait in line) to get shoppers in the door. Many of the biggest deals focus on electronics, especially TVs and computers, with retailers slashing the sticker price.
Kmart is offering 55-inch Westinghouse TVs for $449, discounted $150 from the regular price. Target is selling a Nikon D3200 digital SLR for $496, discounted $283.
Best Buy has a 50-inch Panasonic TV for $199 and a 29-inch Insignia TV for $99. Staples is offering an 11.6-inch laptop for $99, discounted $150 from its regular price. And Walmart is offering a 65-inch Vizio TV for $648, discounted $350.
But be sure you read the fine print, because such deals often have considerable limitations. The 55-inch TV at Kmart? There are only two per store, with no rain checks. Target only says “quantities limited” for the deeply-discounted Nikon, and, of course, no rain checks.
Best Buy has “at least” five of the 50-inch TVs and 10 of the 29-inch TVs at each of its stores, but no more. Staples notes only that its doorbuster deals are available “while supplies last.”
Walmart takes a different approach, with a “1-Hour Guarantee.” If its doorbuster items sell out within an hour of the sale’s start, Walmart offers customers a chance to buy the item at the stated price and pick it up at the store at a later date.
3. Stepping up competition with online retailers and rapid package delivery.
Online sales are still much smaller than total bricks-and-mortar store sales, but they’re forecast to grow at a faster rate: The NRF predicts online sales will increase between 8 percent and 11 percent over last year, to $105 billion. That means retailers are emphasizing online sales more than ever. And they’re competing more directly with e-commerce behemoth Amazon: Walmart recently started matching Amazon’s prices for the first time.
One major way retailers are trying to lure customers is with shipping promotions. Target is offering free shipping on all orders through Dec. 20, while Walmart is offering free shipping on its most popular items and many Black Friday sale items.
Amazon, Target, Macy’s and other retailers are offering speedier delivery, including overnight and same-day options that will continue even past the holidays.
Charlotte-based Belk saw its website crash and freeze during Black Friday last year, leaving many shoppers frustrated as they couldn’t complete their purchases. Spokewoman Jessica Graham said the company has beefed up its online presence to make sure that doesn’t happen again, tripling the available servers and memory, upgrading software and adding staff.
Retailers are also using e-commerce to bolster their in-store offerings. Macy’s is trying to lure customers into its stores with hourly digital gift card giveaways up to $250 starting at 6 p.m. Thanksgiving Day. Shoppers will scan digital codes with their phones in stores for a chance to win.
4. Extending deals through November.
In case you hadn’t noticed, deals have been starting even before Black Friday and Thanksgiving. Queen City Audio Video & Appliances is advertising its appliance and television sales as “Black November,” lasting all month.
Amazon is offering “Black Friday” deals online already, as is Best Buy. Both were offering sales last week on televisions that matched what stores normally offer as “doorbuster” deals in store on Black Friday, such as a 40-inch Westinghouse TV for $199, with free shipping from Best Buy.
Walmart is offering “Days – not hours – of deep discounts on the hottest gifts,” through multiple smaller promotions besides Black Friday.
“The monies are shifting, and we do feel like November is stealing from December,” said Martin, of ShopperTrak. The spending split between the two months has shifted from 60 percent in December vs. 40 percent in November in 2004 to 56 percent in December vs. 44 percent in November last year.
5. Pushing tablets
This holiday season hasn’t seen a huge “must-have” item emerge like in some years past, but many retailers are pushing discounts on tablets as they try to pump up demand.
Target is offering gift cards that go with the purchase of any iPad. The iPad Air 2 sells for $499, but will come with a $140 Target gift card on Thanksgiving Day. The iPad Mini is $249, with an $80 gift card.
Walmart is offering a discount that might look deeper but is in fact exactly equal: An iPad Mini for $199, with a $30 gift card. Both the Target and Walmart iPad Minis will set you back $169.
Other manufacturers’ tablets will also be on sale. Microsoft – which recently opened its first local standalone retail store, at SouthPark – is offering its Surface Pro 3 tablet for $100 off its list price of $999. Best Buy has the Windows 8 tablet on sale for $149, discounted $80, and the Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro for $199, marked down $100.
Staples is selling Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 Lite tablets for $99, discounted $40, and iPad Air for $319, discounted $80. The Associated Press contributed.