Back in black

Published 2:52 pm Saturday, November 21, 2009

In five days, hordes of people will amass in front of sliding doors across the country.

With many arriving hours before sunrise, they will wait for the doors to open and for the shop-a-thon known as Black Friday to begin.

Black Friday, or the day after Thanksgiving, has become an unofficial retail holiday every year, kicking off the Christmas shopping season. This year, however, experts predict a modest decline in holiday shopping because of lingering uncertainty regarding the economy.

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In Austin, retailers and leaders are hoping to have a successful holiday season — and to keep shoppers in town.

National forecast: slight decline

Though not expected to be as drastic as last winter’s decline, the National Retail Federation still expects a slight decline in retail spending this holiday season.

According to the NRF’s holiday forecast, which was released in October, sales are expected to drop by 1 percent this year.

Last holiday season, sales were down 3.4 percent from the year before.

Typically, there is a roughly 3.4 percent growth in sales from one holiday season to the next, but given the economic climate, this year’s projection is pretty good news.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean people will be flocking to high-end retailers — the NRF projects that people will be very cost conscious when buying gifts, and large discount retailers, like Wal-Mart or Target, will be the favorite destinations.

“As the global economy continues to recover from the worst economic crisis most retailers have ever seen, Americans will focus primarily on practical gifts and shop on a budget this holiday season,” NRF Chief Economist Rosalind Wells said in a press release.

Big retailers: ready to go

In Austin, a Target and a Wal-Mart are separated by just a few blocks. Despite the competition, managers at both stores are excited for Black Friday and the rest of the holiday shopping season.

Sara Wundrow, who became the Austin Target store manager in August, said she expects long lines and big crowds on Friday.

Last year, there were roughly 800 people lined up outside the retailer when it opened on Black Friday, Wundrow said. She expects at least that many this year.

“It is the busiest day of the year,” Wundrow said. “The store will be packed.”

The Austin Target will be opening at 5 a.m. to accommodate Black Friday shoppers. Inside they will find great deals, especially on toys and electronics, Wundrow said.

“We have excellent holiday deals for our guests,” she said.

Wal-Mart manager Dan Roberts said his staff is excited for Friday, but not because it’s Black Friday.

“We actually don’t call it Black Friday,” Roberts said.

The manager said the retailer has been calling it their “yearly event” for a number of years.

And it makes sense to label it something different because the Austin Wal-Mart is open 24 hours — meaning no mile-long lines at sunrise.

But this doesn’t mean the store isn’t prepping for shoppers.

“We’re ready to go. We’re ready to have some fun,” said Roberts, who added that extra staff will be on-hand to help.

Like Target, Wal-Mart will have great deals on items like toys and electronics, Roberts said.

Both store managers said safety measures will be stressed so no one gets trampled.

They also said they are hopeful that Austin residents stay in town for their holiday shopping and choose their stores.

“We’re looking forward to a busy holiday season,” Wundrow said.

Austin businesses: hoping to keep shoppers in town

Sandy Forstner, the executive director of the Austin Area Chamber of Commerce, said he hopes for a stronger holiday season in town this year.

One positive indicator, he said, is Austin’s unemployment rate, which is lower than the national average.

“That will help us,” Forstner said.

The chamber director also is hoping shoppers decide to stay in Austin, rather than going to Bloomington’s Mall of America, for example.

“There are local stores with great gift appeal,” Forstner said. “(Shoppers) can find good value here.”

Steve Musel, who is filling in as manager at the Sterling Main Street shopping center in Austin, echoed Forstner’s sentiment.

He said his store has a lot of unique gift items a shopper couldn’t find at Target or Wal-Mart.

“We’re not competing on like items,” Musel said. “(Our) gifts and toys tend to be exclusive.”

Musel said he is optimistic that Sterling will see at least small retail growth over last holiday season.

But he doesn’t expect that to depend entirely on how the store does on Black Friday.

In fact, Musel said smaller stores like his tend to do better later in the holiday shopping season.

“Black Friday for us is a good day, but it’s kind of for the big boys,” he said.

That doesn’t mean Musel and the staff at Sterling aren’t getting ready for Friday — last week, they busily worked to get shelves stocked.

And soon enough, Santa will be on-hand to greet holiday shoppers.

“We make it fun,” Musel said.

Holiday shopping fun facts

Though it was the busiest shopping day of the year in 2008, Black Friday often trails the Saturday before Christmas in total sales

Black Friday received its name because it’s traditionally the day when retailers go from the “red” to the “black”

Americans are expected to spend $437.6 billion this holiday season. The average citizen will spend $683

Two types of cards are expected to decline in popularity — the number of people using credit cards for holiday purchases is expected to drop 10 percent, while gift card sales are also expected to go down

Though a lot of people get started with holiday shopping on Black Friday, many have already gone through the checkout lines: 40 percent of Americans were expected to begin holiday shopping before Halloween this year

Sources: NRF, ShopperTrak