black-friday-sales-will-stretch-from-thursday-to-monday-this-yeaIf you're planning to get up early to shop the day after Thanksgiving, you'll have plenty of company. A raft of surveys released as we head into the final days before the holiday shopping kickoff show Black Friday crowds are expected to be as large as usual, but calmer and less free-spending than in past years. And customers will be shopping for toys, housewares and electronics.

Retailers are stretching out the Black Friday sales, starting earlier and spreading the specials throughout the holiday weekend, leading to Cyber Monday, the day online holiday shopping is expected to surge.
Since consumers now combine online and in-store shopping to work through their gift lists -- some surveys estimate a third of in-store sales begin with an online search -- many merchants are making specials available on their websites in advance to stimulate demand and nab some of those online sales early on. Shop.org, the online arm of the National Retail Federation, has lined up retailers who will offer "deals of the hour" online at CyberMonday.com throughout Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Expect fewer door rushes at opening time; many retailers plan to start sales early to avoid crushes like the fatal stampede at a New York Walmart last year. Toys R Us, for example, is putting a raft of deals, such as 50% off Barbie dolls and Star Wars action figures, for sale online at 12:01 a.m. Thanksgiving Day. And Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) will keep stores open 24 hours, one of the safety measures that were part of a court settlement over last year's stampede.

A Few Toys Are Hot, But Books Are Not

Toys are expected to be hot; Walmart's $10 offer has stirred up the pot, and its competitors are rushing to match it. After months of waiting for a must-have item to emerge, retailers have finally seen two hot toys surface this holiday: Zhu Zhu Pets and Bakugan Battle Brawlers. According to a recent New York Times piece, stores are having trouble keeping Zhu Zhu Pets in stock. The $7.99 robotic hamsters made by Cepia are a recession-friendly fad, according to the Times, but it also noted desperate parents are buying them online for several times the sticker price.

There are no other no must-have items, although much to retailers' relief, housewares and apparel are showing strength after taking a harsh beating over the last year. According to a survey by the International Council of Shopping Centers, clothing is the most popular gift category again this year, but there's been a surge of interest among shoppers in buying gifts of music and movies, housewares and consumer electronics -- especially the new electronic book readers. Meanwhile, the ICSC's survey shows interest in books as gifts is down sharply, so the battle over $9 books may be over before it starts.

The popularity of clothing is no surprise, since it's always a gift staple, said the report by ICSC Chief Economist Michael Niemira. But the surge in housewares is a typical behavior in a recession; consumers become focused on "nesting" and entertaining at home, so they will buy more gifts with that in mind, he explained.

Luring Frugal Shoppers With Doorbusters

Sales predictions are mixed; experts sounded out by Reuters said they expect sales will beat last year's disastrous numbers thanks to a combination of milder weather, slightly more optimistic consumers and retailers stirring up interest with pre-holiday sales.

But consumers have become more selective. Stores' early efforts to stir up interest with pre-holiday sales met with lukewarm responses; according to the ICSC, 16% of shoppers are waiting for Black Friday to start holiday shopping this year, up significantly from past years.

A survey from the Conference Board shows the average shopper plans to spend $390 on gifts, down from $418 last year.

"Job losses and uncertainty about the future are making for a very frugal shopper," said a report from Lynn Franco, director of The Conference Board Consumer Research Center.

The only prediction that experts agree on is that retailers will have to put a full-court press to get shoppers to part with their money. This year's sales will still be as attractive as always -- Best Buy Inc. (BBY) is offering doorbusters that include a laptop for under $200, and Walmart has a 32-inch flat screen TV for under $300.

Despite retailers' continuing focus on controlling inventory and markdowns this year, nobody dares miss Black Friday. At their third-quarter conference calls earlier this month, nearly every retailer said it planned to be loaded for bear on the day after Thanksgiving. As Gap Inc. (GPS) Chief Financial Officer Sabrina Simmons said: "We're going to play hard."

After all, Black Friday gets its name from a simple fact: It's when stores' books move from the red to the black. After the bloodletting last holiday, merchants are hoping to write a different Christmas story this year.

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