A sea of blue shirts swarmed inside the Best Buy store on Dale Mabry Highway early Saturday morning as more than 90 sales associates, shelf stockers, managers and Geek Squad agents were drilled in preparation for the store's busiest day of the year: Black Friday.
Best Buy employees studied maps of checkout queues created to handle the rush of shoppers they expect on Thanksgiving Day when stores open at 5 p.m. Some employees acted as shoppers who lost their ticket for a doorbuster deal on a flat-screen TV while others were expected to handle the situation. Some employees pretended to steal or demanded to use the bathroom.
All of this preparation, which includes hiring sheriff's deputies on the big day and putting up barricades outside the store entrance, plays an important role in making sure Best Buy's sales are in the black this year.
Holiday season shopping makes up 19 percent of all annual retail-related sales for the year. Black Friday sales have fallen flat for retailers in recent years, as consumer confidence has yet to reach the level it was before the recession. Big chains continue to close stores nationwide and have reported disappointing revenue growth, if any at all.
"The growth will be online and in mobile, but the overall retail business is very soft," said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a national retail consulting and investment banking firm in New York City. "It's interesting that department stores are the biggest promoters of Black Friday when their sales are so bad."
But there are some indicators that this year will be a more robust shopping season — lower gas prices, new job growth and an improving housing market all point to modest, but better, sales. The National Retail Federation predicts that retail sales in November and December will grow by 3.7 percent, or to $630.5 billion nationally. The Florida Retail Federation predicts a 4.5 percent increase here.
"Florida continues to see a strong increase in its economy thanks to record-setting tourism, increased consumer confidence, a surging real estate market and a seven-year low in unemployment, all of which mean big expectations for retailers this holiday season," said Rick McAllister, president and CEO of the Florida Retail Federation.
But consumers continue to be driven to buy based on value, so Best Buy and others are betting that deals — like $149.99 for a Toshiba 49-inch flat-screen TV — get people from the dinner table to the store on Thanksgiving.
Last year, hardcore Black Friday shoppers lined up outside the Best Buy Tampa store the Saturday before Thanksgiving, said general manager Diana Joseph. There were no shoppers waiting this past weekend.
But Joseph said the diehard shoppers come every year. One shopper has come to the store in Tampa on Black Friday for nearly 10 years, said assistant store manager Jim Murphy.
"We are offering some of our deals online this year, but there's definitely the rush of being here and getting the deal that brings people out," Joseph said.
Nearly 60 percent of American shoppers said they plan to buy gifts over Thanksgiving weekend, NRF data shows, but more than half started shopping earlier.
"We've seen doorbuster deals inside stores starting just after Halloween, which has spurred a lot of early sales this year," said Jeff Green, a retail analyst in Phoenix. "I think because of that, stores will see a very strong November and a very weak December."
Because Black Friday deals are focused on value prices, they don't rake in much money for retailers. Doorbuster deals have always been a way to get people in the stores, with the hopes that they'll buy other items, too. But that isn't happening as much as it used to.
And it's probably why some retailers — like Staples, GameStop, REI, Dillard's, Costco and Nordstrom — have decided not to open on Thanksgiving.
"For many, it's just not a profitable venture," Green said.
And the lines of Black Friday have been blurred because of earlier store hours. While Best Buy expects a big crowd on Thanksgiving night, the biggest day of the weekend will be Friday, when the store reopens at 8 a.m. and launches a new round of deals. But many consumers will shop all weekend long.
"People are stretching out Black Friday to last from Thanksgiving until Cyber Monday. There's not so many crowds because of this, and it does create a lot of lull time for retailers," Green said. "It's weird to see over the last couple of seasons how slow Black Friday has been, but that's the new normal."
Contact Justine Griffin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.