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Black Friday started early for retailers last week.
In an effort to secure their share of wallets over the weekend, many merchants pre-empted competitors by revealing their promotional plans days in advance of the traditional Thanksgiving Day circulars.
The early announcements may have also been prompted by advanced postings of purported Black Friday ad scans by a slew of consumer Web sites.
Some chains, like Wal-Mart and hhgregg, posted their entire Black Friday sales circulars online last Monday, giving customers a head start on mapping out their Black Friday strategies.
Office Depot and Newegg.com similarly sent registered customers "sneak peek" emails early last week containing Black Friday specials, while Toys "R" Us pre-announced a series of online Black Friday and Cyber Monday discounts on videogames and Disney combo TV units.
Others, like Sixth Avenue Electronics, took the strategy a step further by taking pre-orders on Black Friday specials days ahead of the holiday weekend.
"No, we're not kidding," the company's Web site proclaimed. "Order today at real Black Friday prices and your products are guaranteed to ship by Black Friday."
Best Buy also entered the fray, offering such seeming doorbuster specials as 42-inch and 50-inch Samsung 720p plasmas for $700 and $800, respectively, the weekend before Black Friday.
Still, retailers were doubtful that the deals would rouse shell-shocked consumers. Merchants projected a slim 1.2 percent increase in sales on Black Friday, compared with the 8.3-percent spike enjoyed last year, according to a survey of 100 chief marketing officers at leading chains nationwide.
Of those queried, 68 said Black Friday sales would be flat, 16 predicted an increase, and 16 forecast a decline. The annual survey by Chicago consultancy BDO Seidman was conducted in late September and October, after the global financial meltdown began.
Consumers themselves said their Black Friday shopping plans would be narrow and targeted. According to an NPD Group poll of more than 800 shoppers taken during the last week of October, 54 percent of those planning to participate in early-bird promotions said they are more interested in deals on specific products rather than just overall bargains.
While the downbeat outlook reflected the weak economy, early November promotions may also have eaten into Black Friday sales. Wal-Mart, for example, rolled back prices on numerous electronics, including a Magnavox Blu-ray Disc player, from $229 to $198 (reduced to $128 on Black Friday), while Kmart offered a 26-inch Element LCD HDTV for $300 in an "early Black Friday deal" on Nov. 16.
David Strasser, an analyst with Banc of America Securities, was more upbeat than the retail execs about Black Friday, predicting that post-turkey sales would be "very strong." His rationale, cited in a research note, was threefold:
Black Friday events are somewhat controlled by the retailers, who can add more doorbuster inventory to drive sales or heavily discount big-ticket products to drive higher tickets;
cash-strapped consumers would be more willing than ever to "wake up at absurd hours, stand in line and fight like mad" for the cheapest possible prices; and
the precedent of Black Friday 2002, when sales were very strong despite a challenging macro-economic environment.
Strasser noted that the rest of the 2002 holiday season ultimately proved disappointing, and predicted that post-Thanksgiving sales will also be lackluster this year.
Indeed, of the 23 percent of consumers in the NPD poll who had considered buying a large flat-panel TV (40 inches and larger), 33 percent said they will definitely not buy one now because of the economy. Similarly, of the 12 percent of consumers who had been in the market for a d-SLR, one-quarter said they will now probably forgo plans to purchase a higher-end camera.
"The extraordinary economic turmoil we have seen will have a tremendous impact this season as consumers have said that they will probably or definitely hold off on products that have grossed the highest revenue over the last several holiday seasons," said Ross Rubin, NPD's industry analysis director.
For complete and current Black Friday coverage visit www.TWICE.com during the week of Dec. 1.
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