For EMS, Customer Service Key On Black Friday

Employees at one retailer are already working hard to prepare for Black Friday. The CEO of Eastern Mountain Sports says the day will make or break the holiday sales season for the outdoor outfitter. We go behind the scenes at an EMS store in Portsmouth, N.H., to see how workers are getting ready to rack up big sales.

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For the past two years, the recession has sapped the holiday shopping season of its usual magic. But this year, retail analysts predict consumers are ready to start spending again, and competition is fierce.

Traditionally, the biggest battle has come on Black Friday, when holiday shoppers tend to flock to the stores with the deepest discounts. Shannon Mullen visited an outdoor gear retailer in New Hampshire to find out what it takes to beat the others.

SHANNON MULLEN: At Eastern Mountain Sports in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, store manager Jason White cuts open a long cardboard box.

JASON WHITE (Manager, Eastern Mountain Sports): We just got in a big delivery of Tubbs snowshoes thatll be part of our event for Black Friday.

MULLEN: White says theyll be on sale for nearly half-price.

Mr. WHITE: Nothing wrong with them, theyre brand new snowshoes. They just have last years color on them. So thats it - great deal for our customers.

MULLEN: Retailers offer these so-called door-buster deals to try to lure shoppers away from rival stores on Black Friday. For many companies, sales from that one day can turn their profit margin from red to black for the year.

This year, some big national companies like Sears and K-Mart are so eager to cash in on the holiday spirit theyre even opening on Thanksgiving Day.

At Eastern Mountain Sports, CEO Will Manzer says his company has weathered the recession better than others because it specializes in stress relief.

Mr. WILL MANZER (Chief Executive Officer, Eastern Mountain Sports): You can completely forget about Wall Street, the president, the international - whoever you want to forget about when youre outside on a pair of snowshoes, and its softly snowing, and it's - you can hear a pin drop. We sell that, and theres no better business to be in right now.

MULLEN: That said, as a small regional chain, Eastern Mountain Sports is vying for customers against national competitors like L.L. Bean and REI, which offer similar promotions on bigger selections.

Mr. MANZER: The big driver for me is if I can get as many people in here as I can possibly get in here during the Thanksgiving weekend, they know this is the place to come back for the winter.

MULLEN: How important is this weekend to your annual bottom line?

Mr. MANZER: Oh, well, this weekend alone, I believe Friday represents almost three percent of the total sales annually. Thats one day. So it can be a big, big day for us.

MULLEN: All the stores are decked out with hundreds of promotional signs and huge displays of novelty gifts, from traction chains for winter boots to neon Frisbees you can find in the snow.

But ultimately, Manzer says trumping the competition comes down to besting them at customer service, especially on the busiest shopping day of the year. He stresses the importance of hiring outdoor enthusiasts who know and love the gear they sell.

This year, the company beefed up its ranks by some 300 seasonal workers to handle the holiday rush. Again, Portsmouth store manager Jason White.

Mr. WHITE: I would say part of the preparation is making sure theres plenty of coffee in the break room for all the employees, then just making sure people know they cannot call out sick.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MULLEN: Lastly, CEO Will Manzer says it might not help other retailers, but theres no better sales pitch for snowshoes than a Thanksgiving Day snowstorm, as long as the roads get plowed by the time his stores open on Black Friday.

For NPR News, Im Shannon Mullen in Concord, New Hampshire.

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