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‘Black Thanksgiving’ & Small-Biz Saturday

During a panel I hosted at last month’s Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) Industry Forum on how retailers can get consumers into their stores and websites, I told the audience the prior week I witnessed an old-fashioned method on the Lower East Side of Manhattan — hawkers.

Orchard Street is closed by the city on Sundays, and the retailers set up card tables on the sidewalk with salespeople who mesmerize you with deals on clothing and other items and practically take you by the arm inside for “even better” deals.

While I’m not suggesting any CE retailers do that – although I wouldn’t put that past some of you – news of the past week make me think of my limited retail experience when yours truly sold men’s clothing part-time in my Brooklyn neighborhood for a couple of years when I was in college.

At that time, the U.S. was in a deep recession with strong inflation. Retail sales were tough, and my employer’s store relied on sales of big-ticket items like men’s suits, sports jackets and outerwear, which weren’t moving.

When Thanksgiving and Black Friday came and went with no improvement, my boss came up with an idea: Open 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. the three Sundays before Christmas. His best friend, and full-time employee, told me it smacked of desperation and told him, “All you are going to do is spread Saturday’s sales over two days,” and that’s what happened.

So you can guess my gut reaction to the news that Toys “R” Us is going to be open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving, while Sears is going to be open from 7:00 a.m. to noon and Walmart will be open at midnight on Black Friday, with its CE departments opening at 5:00 a.m.

This is going to be the most promotional Black Friday we have ever seen, no question about it, but I don’t think I’m ready for “Black Thanksgiving.” Do these chains really need their employees to work on Thanksgiving? Will the retailers generate more sales, or just spread volume between both days? We’ll see.

One new wrinkle in the holiday sales season that may begin to take hold this year is “Small Business Saturday,” the day after Black Friday.

American Express is pushing the idea to support shopping at local businesses. The credit card company, which announced this on Facebook recently, has garnered support from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and groups across the country, and it is providing consumers and small businesses with incentives to participate.

The premise seems to be consumers should support small businesses to create more jobs in their towns, counties and cities.

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This effort does get the discussion of holiday shopping away from the topic of price. If successful, this event could give independent retailers something to be thankful for this year and down the road.

This blog originally appeared in the TWICE November 22, 2010 print edition.