Black Friday: Ready, set, shop!

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) — Bargain-hungry shoppers raced to malls as early as midnight to be the first in line to grab the best of retailers’ so-called “doorbuster deals” on Black Friday, the kickoff of the 2006 holiday shopping season.
Some malls around the country ignited the shopping frenzy at the stroke of midnight as Thanksgiving turned into Black Friday.

The Citadel Outlets Center in L.A. County, Calif., held a “Moonlight Madness” event this year with some stores opening their doors at 11 pm Thursday.

Anita Boeker, Citadel Outlets’ marketing director, said the Old Navy store already had a long line of people outside it by 11:30 pm Thursday.

“By the time the store opened, they were facing overcapacity,” she said. “Our parking lots are filling up quickly and it’s only 3 am.”

The Hamilton Place mall in Chattanooga, Tenn., opened at 5 am. According to spokesman Jeff Odom, throngs of shoppers crowded into the mall over the first hour to get an early start on the 5 am to 11 am “early bird” discounts ranging from 20% to 50% in some specialty stores such as teen clothier Aeropostale (Charts).

“So far it’s looking like a good and early start to Black Friday, characterized by very calculated shoppers,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst with NPD Group.

“Everybody is very focused on the discounts. People are going to stores with Black Friday circulars in their hands,” Cohen said.
Who’s got the best deals?

Holiday shoppers will see a clearly defined battle line this Black Friday: Wal-Mart on one side, everybody else on the other.

Wal-Mart (Charts), the world largest retailer, unveiled its big holiday deals weeks ahead of Black Friday, slashing prices on popular merchandise such as toys, electronics – including a 42-inch plasma HDTV for $988 – and a variety of home appliances.

Wal-Mart also announced a slew of further discounts in the early hours of Thanksgiving, including Microsoft (Charts) Xbox 360s for $399 and KitchenAid Classic Stand Mixers for $149.

As expected, toys and electronics were among the busiest areas at the Wal-Mart in Union, N.J.
CNN.com: ‘Tis the Holiday Shopping Season

One of the most sought-after items Friday was a 20-inch flatscreen Symphonic TV set for $68.97.

“It’s absolutely amazing to me that in each of the six Wal-Mart stores I’ve been to this morning, people were only buying deals that were in the circular and not really touching any other part of the store,” Cohen said.

That might become a problem for Wal-Mart since the retailer was hoping its aggressive price slashing Friday would rev up recent sluggish sales trends. For November, Wal-Mart expects sales at its stores open at least a year – a key retail measure known as same-store sales – to be flat versus last year.

However, Cohen said the crowds were even bigger at some Target (Charts) stores. “I think Target outmarketed Wal-Mart,” explained Cohen. Here’s how: “Target advertised hundreds of deals for Black Friday and didn’t just put out one circular worth of deals,” he said.
Hunting for T.M.X. Elmo

Toy industry analysts pegged T.M.X. Elmo and the video game consoles PlayStation 3 and Wii as three of the hottest things to give this holiday season.

But good luck finding them. Many stores already posted “out of stock” signs on these products days ahead of Black Friday.

Ernie Speranza chief marketing officer with toy retailer KB Toys, told CNNMoney.com that Elmo still remained an elusive item for the company.

“We don’t have T.M.X. Elmo but we’re taking customers’ names and money upfront and we’ll call them as soon as we get more shipment,” he said. Besides Elmo, he listed Dora, Barbie, electronic learning systems from LeapFrog and other popular toys that parents were grabbing off store shelves.

While the Elmo shortage is worrisome, Speranza still is optimistic for a good season overall. (See what all the Elmo fuss is about)

“The year-over-year sales comparisons look much better just based on the length of the lines outside our stores,” he said.

But there were apparently no availability issues regarding Elmo at the Toys ‘R’ Us flagship store in Manhattan. A company spokesman told CNNMoney.com that the retailer expects to have “thousands of Elmos available across the country today.”
Holiday forecast

The day after Thanksgiving is dubbed “Black Friday” because it’s when retailers are said to finally move out of the red, representing losses, and into the black, indicating profits.

It also marks the start of the four-week gift-buying shopping blitz leading up to Christmas.

November and December sales are critical because the two months together account for as much as 50 percent of their profits and sales.

Eager to capture early holiday sales momentum, merchants battle each other on Black Friday by offering steep discounts on the season’s hottest products in a bid to lure bargain-hungry shoppers and lock in critical holiday dollars.

What’s the outlook for this year? Good but not great. Despite concerns that a cooling housing market has made homeowners feel less wealthy and less inclined to shop, overall retail sales have increased so far this year.

According to some retail analysts, consistent income growth combined with the recently falling gas prices helped offset the negative housing effect and should continue to be a spending catalyst in the coming weeks. (Full story)

Nevertheless, the National Retail Federation (NRF), the industry’s largest trade group, estimates holiday sales will grow 5 percent to $457.4 billion, slower than last year’s 6.1 percent increase.

The NRF expects about 137 million shoppers will hit stores over the three-day Thanksgiving weekend. However, the busiest shopping day of the year typically is the Saturday before Christmas, not Black Friday.

E-tailers are already projected to have a stellar season this year, but industry watchers expect in-store shortages could also help pump up traffic and sales at many Web sites.

ComScore Networks estimates online retail sales over the Thanksgiving weekend are forecast to reach $1.15 billion, up 24 percent from the same period last year, while total holiday-related buying on the Internet is forecast to jump 24 percent to more than $24 billion.

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