RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
That big holiday shopping day known as Black Friday was not as bad as many retailers had feared. One estimate shows American shoppers spent three percent more on the first day of the holiday shopping season this year than they did last year. Though given the grim overall economy, that rally in consumer spending is not expected to last. We sent three reporters out after Thanksgiving to gauge the mood of shoppers. We start with Matt Sepic of member station KWMU, who visited a high-end mall in an affluent suburb of St. Louis.
MATT SEPIC: At 10 a.m. on the day after Thanksgiving, it was pretty easy to find a parking space at the Plaza Frontenac mall. The lot wasn't packed with Porsches or BMWs, and there were no lines outside Saks Fifth Avenue or Tiffany's.
(Soundbite of choir singing Christmas carols)
SEPIC: Inside the mall, the scene was just as civilized. Well-dressed carolers serenaded small crowds. And the only thing that looked like a line at all was the queue of kids waiting to see Santa. Marketing Manager Rena Abrams says this scene was no surprise, especially at the start of a holiday shopping season that many retail analysts expect to be the worst in nearly two decades. Abrams says the mall opened just an hour early on Friday, and shoppers here won't be burning the midnight oil either.
Ms. RENA ABRAMS (Marketing Manager, Plaza Frontenac Mall, St. Louis): Our shoppers now typically want to be here, you know, later in the evening. They come in to this shopping center, go to the store that they're interested in, spend their money, and then, you know, walk around or leave the center.
SEPIC: That assessment turned out to be true, though maybe not so much on the spending part. Terry Sidel(ph) says she's here at Plaza Frontenac mainly to window shop and take part in what's become a de-facto national holiday. Sidel says she's doing some shopping for her daughter and son-in-law. She's spending less and staying practical. And at Plaza Frontenac that means kitchenware retailer Williams-Sonoma instead of Neiman Marcus or Tiffany's.
Ms. TERRY SIDEL: Something that you can - that they can use in their homes. Something that would be for both of them instead of just, you know, an item of clothing for one.
SEPIC: At a J. Crew store, Debbie Miles(ph) just bought some clothes for her college-age kids. Even though she's not too concerned about her own money situation, Miles has been tuned in to all the grim economic news and wonders whether consumerism is really the best thing for America.
Ms. DEBBIE MILES: I think it is a good time to rethink how you're using your resources now because I think it's going to be a while before we get out of the mess that we're in.
SEPIC: That's probably the sentiment that high-end retailers fear most as retail analysts expect them to take the brunt of any spending downturn this holiday season. For NPR News, I'm Matt Sepic in St. Louis.
NATHAN BERNIER: I'm Nathan Bernier, halfway between Austin and St. Antonio at the biggest outlet mall in Texas. While it's not exactly the Saks Fifth Avenue crowd, the San Marcos outlets attract shoppers from across the state. And if there was any concern about the national economy, you couldn't tell here on Thanksgiving night.
Unidentified Man: Woah! We made it!
Unidentified Woman: Yes!
BERNIER: The factory outlets opened at midnight on Black Friday in a bid to grab some extra sales. Cars were backed up for miles on the interstate. Police redirected traffic along rural roads. Shoppers like Irma Pedronow(ph) and Rebecca Allen(ph) waited an hour and a half in line to buy handbags.
Ms. IRMA PEDRONOW: Just so we can blow our money.
BERNIER: How much are you going to blow?
Ms. REBECCA ALLEN: Like $500.
BERNIER: The next day the parking lot was still packed.
Ms. JENNIFER HAYWARD(ph): Turn here. These people are all over the place.
BERNIER: Jennifer Hayward drove here from Houston. That took her more than three hours. Then she had to spend 20 minutes just to find a place to park.
Ms. HAYWARD: In fact, we were kind of hoping that maybe people would stay home because of the supposed problems with the economy, but apparently that's not the case.
Ms. SELENA MCGILL(ph) (Representative, Prime Retail): We don't disclose specific numbers, but I can tell you that we have increased by double digits over last year what our traffic counts have been so far.
BERNIER: Selena McGill is with Prime Retail, one of two companies that run the San Marcos outlets.
Ms. MCGILL: And talking with retailers, they felt that it was busier compared with last year.
BERNIER: Inside the OshKosh B'Gosh store, Assistant Manager T.J. Alvarez(ph) said it was a busy night.
Mr. T.J. ALVAREZ (Assistant Manager, OshKosh B'Gosh, San Marcos, Texas): Yeah, I mean, it was pretty bad. You know, we had lines going all the way towards the back. So pretty good sales, I'll admit that. So a whole lot of people.
BERNIER: Outside the store, Brandon Smith(ph) was sitting on a cycle rickshaw.
Mr. BRANDON SMITH (Cycle Rickshaw Driver): Tips only, guys. You guys need a ride, need a lift?
BERNIER: He said it was the busiest night he's ever had.
Mr. SMITH: Man, it was balling out of control, dude. Like, I probably made like 35 bucks an hour. I made 150 bucks in about four hours. It was great. But I was beat up for it, you know. I was tired, man.
BERNIER: It's important to know that energy-rich Texas has not been hit as hard by the economic downturn. Business growth here has outpaced the national average, but unemployment is also up in Texas, though it may still be the heavily discounted retailers that gain the most in an uncertain economy. For NPR News, I'm Nathan Bernier in San Marcos, Texas.
CURT NICKISCH: And I'm Curt Nickisch in Boston. While Black Friday may be the big day for brick-and-mortar stores, today is Cyber Monday. That's when online retailers kick off their season. One of them is Dancing Deer Baking Company where workers like Tony Rosa(ph) have been boxing cookies and cakes for shipping.
Mr. TONY ROSA (Quality Control Manager, Dancing Deer Baking Company): Real tasty. Making sure these customers get what they ordered in one piece and also looking real good.
NICKISCH: So far this opening weekend, the company's online sales have been looking pretty good.
Mr. SCOTT MILLER (VP Direct-to-Consumer Marketing, Dancing Deer Baking Company): We're on pace to be about 30 percent greater sales volume than last year.
NICKISCH: That's Scott Miller who heads the company's ecommerce. He made the decision to market bigger discounts this year through email and online ads.
Mr. MILLER: Free shipping is common, so we're doing penny shipping. And the early read is good. I mean, we're definitely more aggressive with our offers and promotions this year.
NICKISCH: Other online sellers across the country are too. The National Retail Federation says more than eight out of 10 will offer some sort of Cyber Monday promotion today, a sizeable jump over last year. Amanda Pires is the marketing director for PayPal, a Web transaction company. She tracked ecommerce over the weekend and says while sales of home furnishings were down, sales climbed for clothes and electronic gadgets. Pires credits the widespread promotions.
Ms. AMANDA PIRES (Director of Corporate Communications, PayPal): With all the free shipping out there, it's sort of like why would you, you know, go to the mall and fight for a parking space and stand in line? I know personally I wouldn't, and I don't.
(Soundbite of laughter)
NICKISCH: Despite the encouraging start for online sellers, Pires cautions it's way too early to make any predictions.
Ms. PIRES: You know, it's all over the map right now. We're in unprecedented times. And I just - I don't know that anybody knows.
NICKISCH: One reason for the uncertainty is that the holiday season is shorter this year. There's less time to make up those dollars. Plus, all those online promotions come at a cost. Dancing Deer's discounts are knocking an extra three percent off the top of the baking company's revenues. Manager Scott Miller hopes to make it up with increased business. Today's sales will be a big indicator.
Mr. MILLER: Cyber Monday is very important to us. It really is where the flag drops on our holiday volume.
NICKISCH: One more thing. Retailers have been getting better at ecommerce each year. They hope they can make the most of it this year to find a sweet spot in a pretty sour economy. For NPR News, I'm Curt Nickisch in Boston.
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