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So-so start to holiday shopping?

By Mark Hamrick ·
Monday, December 2, 2013
Posted: 5 pm ET

After years avoiding Black Friday shopping, my success in staying away from crowds came to an end last week. For more than a decade, my wife and now college-age son awoke early on Black Friday to participate in the shopping extravaganza. They went out in search for the latest video game console or sometimes just to see what bargains they could score. I usually worked on those Fridays, so I had a solid excuse. This year, not so.

Hoping to ease into the transition, our crew thought a suburban outlet mall would be a safe start for me. No pushing and shoving as was seen at some discount stores, where people seem to get injured on a regular basis. This place was very civilized -- even boasting a Starbucks. But I had enough of a buzz already, thank you.

In the time we were at the outlets (from about 11 p.m. Thursday to 4 a.m. Friday), there were plenty of eager buyers. Most of the shoppers were in their 20s or 30s, willing to wait outside stores in the cold weather. The National Retail Federation, or NRF, confirmed what my eyes saw, saying in a press release that "more than three-quarters of 18- to 34-year-olds shopped or planned to shop over the holiday weekend -- higher than any other age group -- with Black Friday being the most popular day."

One store we were shopping in had a line snaking around all the merchandise where it took 90 minutes to cash out. Had I been alone, I would have made a break for the door and headed home. But we waited for the "deal" on two coveted items. By the time we finished shopping, drove home and calmed down from all the frenzy, I think we got to sleep at about 6 a.m.

I was pleasantly surprised to see consumers and retail workers were almost all good-natured. While I managed to point my wife and son in the direction of some "suggested" gifts where we found deep discounting of men's clothing, we'll leave open the question whether it will be worth it again forgoing a night's sleep for a hefty helping of 50 percent off.

Economic boost?

So was our late-night shopping spree enough to boost the economy? Not so much, from the initial looks of it.

The NRF said even though shoppers turned out in record numbers this weekend, they only spent an estimated $57.4 billion, marking the first year-over-year decline since the group started keeping track in 2006.  It is looking for a nearly 4 percent increase in sales over the entire holiday shopping season.

Mike Niemira, chief economist with the International Council of Shopping Centers, says the disappointing start doesn't necessarily bode poorly for the entire season. "It's really tough to make too much of it. It doesn't really mean that the season as a whole will turn out that way," says Niemira.

Niemira says as retailers place an emphasis on shopping around Thanksgiving, they risk hurting traffic for the season as a whole.

Was opening on Thanksgiving the best plan?

There was a fair amount of backlash expressed online on the part of some consumers who felt that retailers were going too far in staffing stores on Thanksgiving. Some stores were even targeted for Black Friday protests.

Is there a point where retailers' aggressive promotions and holiday hours are turning shoppers off? Niemira says, "There probably is, but I'm not sure we're at that point now. I think the industry will learn as time goes on. If it doesn't work, they'll pull back from it." He says in some markets, it probably doesn't work to be open on Thanksgiving Day. In some markets, it probably works quite well. He says retailers are looking to "make it more convenient for the consumer."

Did you get any Black Fridays deals over the weekend, or are you holding off on holiday shopping?

Follow me on Twitter: @hamrickisms



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