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Why Black Friday is important to retailers

Ron SchererThe Christian Science Monitor

On Fifth Avenue, large crowds of people jammed Lord & Taylor, H&M, the discount clothing store, and Steve Madden, the shoe emporium. But Best Buy – even at 3 p.m. – was in total gridlock.

Upstate, in Saratoga Springs, so many people were in G. Willikers Toys that the owner had a hint of panic in her voice on the phone. “You can hardly move around here,” said Linda Ambrosino on Friday afternoon. “Please call me back in 30 minutes.”

And, on Thursday night, the parking lot at the Cincinnati Premium Outlets was full at 10 p.m., all the off-site parking was taken by midnight, and at 1 a.m. there was a 90-minute wait to exit the expressway to get to the stores.

“There seemed to be a lot of young people taking advantage of the door busters and specials,” says Les Morris, a spokesman for Simon Malls, the owner of the Cincinnati property.

Yes, on the basis of anecdotal evidence, Black Friday 2012 appears to have gotten off to a decent – maybe even ripsnorting – start.

A good portion of the shopper mania appears to be related to the heavily promoted specials such as discounted iPads and tablets. It did not hurt that the weather was perfect for shopping around much of the nation without any major snow storms or downpours. And, retail experts think there could have been some pent-up post-election demand.

“I think sales are going to be fairly robust,” says Bill Martin, the founder of ShopperTrak, a retail research organization based in Chicago. “At noon, I was doing a spot for NBC and there was not even a place on the sidewalk to do some taping.”

Mr. Martin thinks retailers could chalk up an $11 billion day, which would be about 3.3 percent lift over last year, which was a very good year. “If that happened it would be a very good start,” he says.

A strong retail season would dispel concerns that consumers are worried about the fiscal cliff driving the economy into a recession. Some consumer surveys have shown Americans are nervous about the possibility of gridlock in Washington sending the economy into a tailspin.

“Consumer sentiment has slipped especially in terms of where people think we are heading in the future and their own finances,” said Chris Christopher, Jr., senior principal economist at IHS Global Insight in Lexington, Mass., in an interview with the Monitor on Wednesday.

Martin says the next few weeks will determine whether Black Friday was an outlier or an indication consumers are not worried.

“There is a long time between now and Christmas,” says Martin. “We will have to see if they just sit on the sidelines waiting for retailers to blink and bring the promotions back.”

However, not all the activity was related to promotions. Ms. Ambrosino says she does not do specials nor does she open up at midnight. Instead, she opened her doors at 9 a.m.

“We like to think we offer a good product for a good price all year long,” says the small business owner, who has four stores. “And, I like my staff to get their sleep.”

A key factor, she says, was the good weather.

“It used to be that when it snowed, people would come back,” she says. “Now, when the weather is bad, they just get on the computer to do their shopping.

Many consumers seemed unfazed by long lines. In San Pedro, Calif., the line wrapped around a Target while people waited for it to open at 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving evening.

“The staff told me they had a whole new wave of people come in at 4 a.m. when prices were due to change,” says Kerry Gerot, a local resident. “It was a little more quiet late in the morning and at lunchtime.”

In New Jersey the traffic jams were epic. To get to one Simon Mall at Tinton Falls, N.J. there was a three mile backup on the Garden State Parkway – at midnight.

Once shoppers got a parking space at some of the Simon Malls they were rewarded with carolers and jazz groups. Mall employees showered shoppers with coupons for free coffee and appetizers at mall restaurants.

The sustenance was probably needed – to brave the traffic leaving the malls.