It can be a sport, a social experience, the worst day of the year, or the best day of the year. Whether you flock to the mall area or support local businesses — or avoid the chaos altogether — Black Friday has become a retail tradition offering some of the best deals to kick off the holiday shopping season.
Stores open well before dawn to lines of eager shoppers — some of whom spend the night in the parking lot waiting for the doors to open in order to snag the best deals.
While the official fliers don’t hit the newspaper until today, some stores have begun promoting sales on television and online. Walmart is advertising 32-inch Emerson TVs for $198. Target has an eight-piece king bedding set for $49. And at Best Buy, 40 lucky shoppers will purchase a 32-inch Samsung TV and Nintendo Wii Console package for $399.99.
Many stores also offered pre-Black Friday deals in the days leading up to the retail event of the year to entice shoppers to start early.
But it’s not just the big-box stores that participate in the sales. Many local businesses also offer special deals and treats for customers on Black Friday in an effort to attract shoppers to downtown areas.
Black Friday, appropriately named because it is a chance for many merchants to get their budgets in the black, traditionally is one of the biggest shopping days of the year. For some retailers and small businesses in Maine, seasonal sales account for 25-40 percent of their annual sales, according to University of Maine Cooperative Extension specialist and professor of economics Jim McConnon.
The Grasshopper Shop, with locations in Bangor, Ellsworth, Searsport and Rockland, will feature a 25 percent off sale on all clothing for the weekend.
“I think there are great advantages to shopping downtown,” said Grasshopper Shop owner Rick Schweikert. “There’s customer service, quality goods, Maine items, free gift wrapping — it’s just a whole independent mindset where you’re not just buying what the masses buy.”
Schweikert pointed out that downtown shoppers don’t usually run into parking issues as they might at malls and super centers that day.
Bella Luna in Bangor plans to have a 25 percent off sale storewide. But more importantly, it aims to create a relaxed shopping atmosphere by providing hot drinks and snacks, free gift-wrapping and attentive customer service.
“We’re kind of doing an anti-Black Friday,” said Bella Luna owner Heather van Frankenhuyzen. “I hear Target is doing $3 appliances; I can’t really compete with that. But we’re going to have our employees here as always and helping people shop.”
As with many small businesses, Bella Luna’s Black Friday sale will be running all weekend. Small business owners expect many people to hit the big-box stores and the mall, but hope they will shop downtown later in the day or that weekend.
“We did it last year, and we did really well with it,” said Frankenhuyzen. “We found a lot of people are really tired of the mall mentality. Our customer is looking for something different.”
The recently opened Sweetest Thing studio is offering the first 30 people through the doors 50 percent of a Maine-made Seabag wine bag. They’re also offering a deal for those who sign a contract for planning their wedding and floral design. Until Dec. 31 they will receive a free bridal bouquet valued at $150.
It also might be worth the trip to downtown areas just to witness the transformation of store windows as they put up their finest holiday displays.
“We sell Christmas year-round, but that weekend, we change the whole look of the store,” said Rick Vigue, owner of Rebecca’s in Bangor. “We’ll have all the windows done. We really have a whole different look in that store on that particular day. It goes from fall to a little Christmas wonderland.”
Rebecca’s has some Black Friday customers who have made it a tradition to visit the store and have been returning for 20 to 25 years to buy ornaments and gifts, said Vigue.
Epic Sports is one of the few stores in downtown Bangor that opens early on Black Friday. Their Early Bird Sale — 25 percent off storewide — begins at 6 a.m. and ends that day at 7 p.m.
In the past, some Ellsworth stores have advertised Black Friday sales independently, but this is the first year the small businesses in that area have organized to promote the Black Friday shopping experience.
“There’s a reason to stay in town: to get personalized service and not bump elbows and be crazy,” Ellsworth Chamber of Commerce marketing coordinator Kelly Cochrane said. “I worked at a retailer prior [to this job] and am a shopper in Ellsworth, and we don’t have to go somewhere else.”
Fourteen Ellsworth businesses have confirmed they will provide specials and sales on Black Friday, while the Union River Book and Toy Co., The Craft Barn, Pyramid Studios and The Sand Castle will have storewide sales.
“In the Ellsworth area, there is no need for an alarm clock, and there is no need to stand in long, stressful lines,” said Cochrane.
For those who don’t enjoy the retail hustle and bustle of the stores around the holidays, there’s always Cyber Monday.
Internet shopping has come a long way and is a great way to find bargains.
Nine in 10 retailers are telling the National Retail Federation survey partners they are planning special Cyber Monday sales and specials, which often includes free shipping, on what has become the biggest online shopping day of the year.
While many will be shopping online from home over the Thanksgiving weekend, on Cyber Monday, the first Monday after Thanksgiving, as many as 54.5 percent of the work force, or 70.1 million Americans, plan to shop online from work, according to the NRF.
As Black Friday traditionally kicks off the frenzied holiday shopping season, Cyber Monday, a burgeoning retail phenomenon considered in its fifth official year, is the online equivalent and can mean boom or bust for many retailers as shoppers hit their keyboards instead of the aisles.
Cyber Monday traditionally offers good deals for consumers and robust sales for online merchants. According to Nory Jones, UMaine associate professor of management information systems at the Maine Business School, the vast majority of the nation’s retailers are planning specials for online shoppers today. The NRF predicts nearly 90 percent of retailers will offer exclusive Cyber Monday bargains, up from just more than 70 percent last year. Total holiday sales nationally are projected to rise 2.3 percent, the NRF says.
Consumers are becoming more astute about bargain hunting, Jones said, and price comparison has never been easier.
“Many consumers are turning to Internet sales, especially if they didn’t get what they wanted on Black Friday,” Jones said.
Online sales are expected to provide a bright spot this year as they’re projected to increase. Offers of free shipping, discounts and the growing trend of social networking continue to spur online sales. Although online sales represent only 3.4 percent of all retail sales, they have grown in importance over the past decade.
According to McConnon, Maine retailers in general are likely to see a slightly better year than last year. Year-to-date — January 2010-August 2010 — retail sales were up about 3 percent from last year, personal income in Maine was up 2.6 percent in the first two quarters of 2010 compared to the same period in 2009, and wage and salary income was up 1.7 percent in the first two quarters of 2010 compared to 2009. However, Maine unemployment is still high at 7.7 percent in September, compared to 8.1 percent during the last quarter of 2009. U.S. consumer confidence fell 6 percent from February 2010 to August 2010.
No matter how shoppers choose to make their purchases, this holiday season they are expected to continue to focus on price and value. As a result, retailers will offer promotions throughout the shopping season.
Apparel, sporting goods, books, music and personal care, all low-ticket items, are expected to do better than high-ticket items in the housing-related categories such as large appliances, according to McConnon’s research. Jewelry is expected to be popular this year, as are mobile devices such as iPhones and Androids as consumers start to loosen their purse strings.