The nuts and bolts of Black Friday

NEW YORK Whether you've already got your store itinerary planned, want to shop online from your couch, or opt out of buying altogether, here's a primer on the retail equivalent of the Super Bowl:

Q. What's Black Friday?
A. "Black Friday" is the Friday after Thanksgiving and is often considered the traditional start of the holiday shopping season.
Accounts differ on the origin of the term. It's commonly held to have its origin in retailers counting on the crowds of shoppers and a surge in sales to push them into the "black," or profitability, for the year.

Q. What's new this year?
A. To begin with, it's hard to say that it's the "start" of anything. Retailers have pushed the traditional discounts and deals weeks in advance, slapping the "Black Friday" label on sales as far back as October.
It's even infiltrated Thanksgiving. Sears stores will open on the holiday for the first time in the company's history. It's joining Kmart, also owned by Sears Holdings Corp., in trying to win over shoppers on Turkey Day.
In addition, Toys R Us is opening 24 hours straight starting at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving.
Online, a slew of companies including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and J.C. Penney Co. will dramatically step up deals Thursday for those who want to eat then shop.

Q. Is Black Friday the busiest shopping day of the year? And how will stores' increased efforts to pull in shoppers earlier affect Black Friday's business?
A. Historically, Black Friday hasn't always been the biggest day. That honor usually fell to the Saturday before Christmas.
But recently, Black Friday has stolen the crown as the tough economy has made shoppers brave the crowds to nab deals on big-ticket items.
In fact, ShopperTrak, a research firm that tracks sales and traffic at more than 70,000 stores, says that Black Friday has been the top sales day every year but one since it started monitoring holiday data in 2002; the only exception was in 2004, when the busiest day was the Saturday before Christmas.

Q. Will going out to stores before dawn net me the best discounts of the year?
A. Not necessarily. Many of the same deals are available online, minus the crowds. And stores often have discounts that are just as tempting throughout the holiday season, and even the day after Christmas.

Q. How important is Black Friday to retailers? Does Black Friday and the Thanksgiving weekend predict holiday spending?
A. Thanksgiving weekend may be the traditional start of the holiday shopping season, but it doesn't necessarily provide a complete forecast of holiday sales.
In fact, shoppers seem to be procrastinating more every year, so the fate of the holiday season is increasingly down to the last few days.
According to a survey by the International Council of Shopping Centers and Goldman Sachs, shoppers polled said they had completed 23 percent of their holiday buying through last Sunday; that's far below the 32.7 percent in 2009 and 31.8 percent in 2008.
Last year, the Thanksgiving shopping weekend accounted for 12.3 percent of overall holiday revenue, according to ShopperTrak. Black Friday made up about half of that.
Still, retailers closely study buying patterns for the weekend to discern shoppers' mindset. This season could test whether shoppers are starting to return to pre-recession Christmas gift-buying patterns.
Last year, sales for the Thanksgiving weekend rose 2.1 percent from the year before, according to MasterCard Advisors' SpendingPulse.
For the overall holiday period, which ran from Nov. 1 through Dec. 24, revenue rose 3.6 percent compared with 2008, which was disastrous, according to SpendingPulse, which estimates all forms of payment including cash. Adjusted for an extra shopping day between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the number was closer to a 1 percent rise.

Q. So what's expected this weekend?
A. ShopperTrak's Martin expects a 3 percent increase in revenue for the Thanksgiving weekend to about $10.9 billion, from $10.3 billion in the year-ago period.
The research firm predicts a 2 percent gain in customer counts for both Black Friday and for the entire weekend compared with last year.

Q. What's the hot toy this year?
A. While some popular toys have emerged such as Blip Toys' Squinkies and Mattel Inc.'s Sing-a-ma-jigs, the buzz doesn't rise to the same crescendo that Zhu Zhu Pets hamsters reached last year. Back then, the mechanical hamsters were tough to find, and consumers were racing from store to store to grab one.

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