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As sales sputter, stores shout about deals

Shoppers walk along Fifth Avenue in New York on Wednesday as retailers prepare for a dismal holiday season.

Associated Press

Shoppers walk along Fifth Avenue in New York on Wednesday as retailers prepare for a dismal holiday season.

Retailers' earlier-than-usual deep discounts to kick-start the holiday spending season didn't move the needle, meaning stores must pull out all the stops to get people in a mood to spend.

Last week's chain-store sales sputtered lower on the most commonly accepted index of same-store sales, down 0.9 percent compared with last year's, reports the International Council of Shopping Centers. That was slightly worse than the week before. And a fresh National Retail Federation survey found fewer shoppers than last year plan to be out shopping on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, which is the traditional start of the season.

"People were more interested in getting ready for Thanksgiving last week," said Mike Niemira, chief economist of the ICSC. "They're seemingly holding back for the big discounts."

Some 36 percent of all shoppers "definitely" plan to go shopping Friday, down from 45 percent a year ago. Overall, 128-million will do some holiday shopping over the three-day weekend, down from 135-million a year ago.

That's still a huge crowd for a Friday that will likely become the third- or fourth-biggest sales day of the year. Each of the big area malls will see about 80,000 people cross their thresholds.

So retailers are turning up the promotional volume and cutting prices even deeper in one-hour to one-day sales to get their share. "The overriding message this holiday season is value," said Dan Butler, vice president of operations for the retail federation. "The magnitude of promotional sales will be the most intense in years."

Some stores will be open Thanksgiving Day.

JCPenney opens at 4 a.m. Friday with Best Buy, Macy's and many malls opening at 5 a.m. Prime Outlets Ellenton is offering free nightshirts to the first 500 who show up in pajamas for its annual shopping all-nighter that begins at midnight Thanksgiving Day. "We picked pj's because some people actually show up dressed in them. People do this because it's fun," said Karen Fluharty, vice president of advertising for Prime Retail, which will stage the event at 16 malls this year. New this year: text messages that alert shoppers to one-hour specials.

Prime's ad message mixes this year's emphasis on the budget with the splurge: "Save the Holidays. Be a frugal fashionista."

It's all part of an annual game of chicken. Retailers use Black Friday to set the tone that it's okay to start spending for the holidays. They discount to get shoppers spending. Savvy shoppers hold out for the last week. They monitor the markdown racks like hawks in hopes stores will slash prices to avoid being stuck with dated merchandise.

Last week's discounting — while deeper than usual — was not new. With the calendar giving stores five fewer days between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year, most retailers didn't adjust their discount calendar from last year.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

As sales sputter, stores shout about deals 11/26/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 27, 2008 1:03pm]
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