These bargain bins at Target in Rockville, Md., are filled with $5 pajamas. Many retailers said their cheapest items went first and fast on Black Friday.
These bargain bins at Target in Rockville, Md., are filled with $5 pajamas. Many retailers said their cheapest items went first and fast on Black Friday. Tamara Keith/NPR
The day after Thanksgiving — "Black Friday" — is the traditional start of the holiday shopping season.
This year retailers did their best to lure consumers to open their wallets with lots of early-morning specials. But while the economy has shown some signs of an improvement, analysts say the high rate of unemployment is weighing on people's willingness to spend.
At 4:45 a.m. on Friday, Target store team leader Jim Cioffi prepared his employees for the insanity that would soon pour through the doors.
"You guys ready?" he asked. "Yup," responded his employees at the Rockville, Md., store.
Outside shoppers — some hardy, some just nuts — had been standing in line for hours. Cheryl Hoover is a die-hard Black Friday regular.
"I've been doing it for so many years, there's just a part of me that can't give it up," she said. "I love doing it. Believe it or not, I love doing it."
Back in the store the doors opened and carts banged and squeaked. Some people ran. All the early shoppers seemed to be headed straight for the electronics department.
A 32-inch flat screen TV for just under $250 was the hottest item by far. They were gone in 4 minutes. The more expensive 40-inch TVs moveed slowly. It was the same with GPS devices; the cheapest ones went first and fast.
Patty Edwards, a retail analyst with Storehouse Partners, says that fits with what she heard from shoppers as she visited stores on Friday.
"[There's] a lot more focus on conserving money," Edwards said. "Most folks said they were spending either the same or less than last year [and] that they were hoping to buy roughly the same amount of items, but spend less money doing it."
The National Retail Federation predicts sales will be down 1 percent this holiday season compared with last year. The 2008 holiday sales season was rough for retailers, who were caught off guard by recession-driven frugality. This year, Edwards says, they seem ready.
"They did a phenomenal job, as best I've been able to tell, of buying at the right price so that it appears to the consumer to offer great value, but also provides decent margins to the retailer," she said, adding it is a change from last year when there was "really a smell of fear in the air when you walked into any of the stores and the consumers knew that they had the retailers right where they wanted them."
On Friday, Target was offering toasters, coffeemakers, crockpots and sandwich makers for $3, down from about $10. Store manager Jim Cioffi says he was shocked at how quickly they sold out.
"I couldn't believe it. I saw people with two, three, four, five, six crockpots and yeah, it's unbelievable," he said.
Another unlikely big seller: kids' pajamas for $5. Bernadette Carter had a pile of them in her cart that she planned to give to nieces and nephews as presents.
"Normally I'd spend $20 a kid. This year I'm doing $5 a kid. I know that's cheap but at least they get a little something," she said.
Call it recession chic. Cioffi says it's all about price, and in much of its marketing this holiday season, Target has been shouting value.
"Those price points just grab you. Like anything that's $10 or less and it's something neat and would make a great gift," he said. "People are just going to jump on a price point."
Black Friday veteran Hoover jumped on the $17 Barbie Ride With Me Scooter. Like many people, she said she is spending less this year, thanks to the recession. And her husband, who admonished her not to use credit cards.
So, instead of paying with credit, she went with debit — right out of her checking account.