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Black Friday will stay marathon event as long as shoppers flock

So the question recurs: Why do retailers force customers to endure the ever-longer marathon that Black Friday has become?

Because they just can't stop after training shoppers for so long to wait for deep discounts.

Stores won't fill in this year's details until Thursday, when many report November sales. But according to early estimates, more shoppers hit the stores this time, though they spent the same or a bit less than a year ago.

Despite all the hoopla, it's becoming clear today's frugal shoppers didn't see prices as low as they needed to pull the trigger. Not just savvy shoppers noticed. So did folks who track sale prices with the passion the National Enquirer has for celebs.

"Many Black Friday discounts, especially in electronics, were just not that great," said Dan de Grandpre, president of dealnews.com. "Many were the same sale prices seen a few weeks ago. Special purchases were often a model missing a feature or cheap appliances you wouldn't want."

While online sales jumped 11 percent Black Friday, that's less a sign of more people steering clear of stores than a reflection of how the Internet has changed how people buy.

Today's multitasking shoppers do research on the Web, then hit stores to touch and feel products and scout deals found only in stores. Then many comparison shop online, double-checking store Facebook pages or Twitter sale alerts before buying. Mobile tech means they can shop the Internet from inside a store. This time, Walmart honored Black Friday door-buster sale prices online, too.

How else to explain that 38 percent of shoppers planned to be out before 6 a.m., yet, according to comScore, 21 percent of Black Friday online sales were made before 5 a.m.?

Other Black Friday nuances:

• Stores that opened earlier in the wee hours drew big crowds. Toys "R" Us lured twice the crowd at midnight as it once did at 5 a.m. Old Navy was jammed at 3 a.m. and the line an hour later at Kohl's in St. Petersburg had 500. So expect more all-nighters.

• After last year's death toll of three (a Walmart worker was trampled to death in a Long Island store opening rush; the other two men shot each other in a nonshopping feud in a California toy store), violence was limited to fists flying at people crowding up in line and one parking-lot stabbing in Atlanta.

• One Black Friday move that could spread: Taubman Centers Inc. bought 2,000 store workers at its International Plaza in Tampa bagel and cream cheese breakfasts, handed them a list of stress reduction tips and hired a dozen therapists to offer free massages in break rooms.

"We think happy merchants equals happy shoppers," said Nina Mahoney, mall marketing director.

Stores have been trying to prod holiday shoppers to spend earlier in November for years. But the eventual "death" of Black Friday seen by a few retailers appears unlikely. As long as Americans have a day off and family tradition to uphold, bargain hunting mobs will be out.

It signals the start of holiday shopping. Yet privately, executives know if they don't make it harder to score deep discounts, how can they expect anybody to pay full price again?

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

Black Friday will stay marathon event as long as shoppers flock 11/30/09 [Last modified: Monday, November 30, 2009 11:20pm]

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