Early Receipts Indicate A Happier Holiday Season

The nation's retailers are hoping consumers open their wallets and spend this holiday shopping season. Amid all the worries about the economy and high unemployment, there are some early indications that this year might be slightly better than last. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

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The holiday shopping season started even earlier this year in hopes that consumers would spend more in these economic times. Macy's, Toy R Us, Target, all moved up their opening times - in some cases to Thanksgiving Day. Joining us now to talk about Black Friday is NPR correspondent Yuki Noguchi. You've been reporting the scenes in stores. What can you tell us about the volume of shopping?

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Well, anecdotally, stores are telling me that customer traffic and the amount of spending is up. We don't have any hard numbers yet. But I went to a downtown Washington Macy's and it was very busy. And the store manager Robert Booker told me this:

ROBERT BOOKER: I've never, ever seen anything - I mean, you know, we do have people waiting sometimes for store opening. But never more than 10, 15, 20 people, and to have, you know, well over 500 people waiting to come in for our specials is something I've never seen in the 20-plus years I've been with the company.

NOGUCHI: And, Scott, I heard versions of this from several chains, who, you know, have similar stories across the country.

SIMON: And, of course, at the same time, we know how bad the job and housing markets are still. What's different about shopping this year?

NOGUCHI: Well, what's different is that people may be planning their spending a little differently - setting an amount that they want to spend for the holiday season and then backing into it. Let's say it's $200 or $300, and they want to get as much for that money as possible.

Stores are open earlier, which in a way creates more of a challenge for customers. Like what to spend where and where to go first. But there are always people who love these kinds of logistics, like Tonia Bailey, who's a veteran Black Friday shopper in New York City.

TONIA BAILEY: The economy that we're having, any sale is a good sale. When we leave here, we're going to go to some other stores in the area. They have like the Fisher Price toys for like $3.99 in JC Penney. So when we leave here, we're going to go there, then we're going to come back. Last year, we did 19 hours.

NOGUCHI: That's 19 hours of shopping. And this year she started at 9 P.M. on Thanksgiving Day.

SIMON: Remind us, Yuki, why Black Friday's so important.

NOGUCHI: Well, because it's a barometer of consumer spending, which itself is a barometer for economic growth. And although it's only one day out of the holiday shopping season, last year it accounted for about 10 percent of the total holiday spend. That said, you know, a lot of people sit this one out. Only 20 percent of shoppers go out on Black Friday. And some say it's just diminishing in importance, because so many people shop online these days.

SIMON: There've been criticism again this year about Black Friday - a feeling among some workers that when you open a store Thanksgiving night, you take the holiday away from your workers. I gather, Target employees, for example, petitioned against opening on Thanksgiving night. What can you tell us about this employee backlash?

NOGUCHI: Well, certainly the earlier hours have inspired lots of critics who say, you know, we should just curb this kind of consumerism. But one of the biggest concerns that retailers had this year was actually safety. I talked to Kathy Grannis at the National Retail Federation. And she told me this:

KATHY GRANNIS: Large stores, department stores had security lining the entranceways. In fact, a lot of retailers are even saying that there were additional training sessions this holiday season because the openings were going to be so early and they'd never experienced that kind of opening before and they didn't know what to expect.

NOGUCHI: You know, it's way before dawn when people are going out. And Grannis says that sort of increases the potential for crime. There were actually at least two incidents of robberies and violence in parking lots. And there was even one shopper who used pepper spray against her fellow shoppers.

SIMON: NPR's Yuki Noguchi, thanks so much.

NOGUCHI: Thanks, Scott.


SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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