published Sunday, November 17th, 2013

Fight for dollars: Industry insiders predict a lucrative holiday shopping season

Hamilton Place mall is decked for the winter holidays and ready for shoppers. The National Retail Foundation predicts that Americans will spend some $602 billion
this holiday.
Hamilton Place mall is decked for the winter holidays and ready for shoppers. The National Retail Foundation predicts that Americans will spend some $602 billion this holiday.
Photo by Tim Barber.
  • photo
    Retailers with brick-and-mortar stores count on a personal shopping experience to draw customers, as well as family-friendly perks such as this Emerson Russell playground, new this year at Hamilton Place mall.
    Photo by Tim Barber.
    enlarge photo

By the numbers

* 3.9 percent - Projected increase in holiday sales this year over last year, up from the 3.5 percent gain from the previous year.

* 15 percent - Projected increase in online holiday sales this year

* 19.5 percent - Share of total retail industry sales that occur during the holidays

* 36 percent - Share of Millennials who shopped on Thanksgiving Day in 2012

* 720,000 - Seasonal jobs created during the holiday sales season

Sources: National Retail Federation, Shop.org

Your Thanksgiving leftovers may have to wait. Retail stores across the nation are hoping to make huge holiday shopping deals immediately after Americans finish their Thanksgiving meal this year.

Some of them will have started before breakfast.

Department stores and malls are rolling out unprecedented shopping hours, and the numbers could be there to make this the most lucrative holiday season to date. Some holiday staples, like Best Buy and Wal-Mart with their barrage of electronic goodies, are slated for a 6 p.m. Thursday opening.

Kmart has downright scared people by announcing a 6 a.m. Thanksgiving start date this year, keeping employees and stock moving for an unthinkable 41 consecutive hours through Friday night. Kmart’s investors hope this aggressive approach could spur a rebound, as the sluggish chain lost 120 stores last year.

Kmart closed outlets in East Ridge and on Mountain Creek Road over the past five years, but its Highway 153 in Hixson will still open come sunrise on Turkey Day.

“It’s a very unique circumstance to be active so early,” said store manager Glenn Bird. “As usual, toys, electronics and apparel are our three main attractions. We’ve done it before, and we’ll do it again.”

Even Macy’s, the American department store as iconic as Thanksgiving itself, is breaking its 155-year tradition of not being open on Turkey Day, all for a slice of the cash pie.

The National Retail Foundation says all the ingredients are there for an unforgettable holiday: last year, 28 percent of all people who went Black Friday shopping were in line by midnight of Thanksgiving. That number was just 10 percent three years ago.

With the growing enthusiasm and readiness to spend, the NRF projects a record $602 billion shopping forecast for this holiday shopping season, a 3.9 percent boost from last year.

“Overall, retailers are optimistic for the 2013 holiday season, hoping political debates over government spending and the debt ceiling do not erase any economic progress we’ve already made,” said Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the National Retail Foundation.

Sales during Black Friday weekend — through Sunday night — have steadily increased every year since the NRF started taking a survey in 2005. Black Friday shoppers spent an average of $423 last year.

Physical retail stores are integrating their early start times to keep these potential record-setting profits away from their online rival counterparts.

Online sales could account for nearly $82 million — 15 percent — of holiday sales this year, NRF says. Shopping malls and box stores are hoping to beat “Black Friday” online deals, which typically starting at 12:01 a.m. Friday.

Each customer is slated to spend an average $737.45 on gifts through Christmas, according to an NRF survey.

The one-click purchases are enough to make a speedy sale and keep customers out of retail stores on the most popular shopping weekend in the United States and have notoriously gotten better at it over time.

Strangely enough, the quarrel between websites and storefronts has been raging for more than 15 years, as online purchases accounted for approximately 7 percent of the holiday market in 1998.

•••

A New York Times article from 1999 outlined retail stores’ first attempts to combat the unknown beast of internet shopping, as the amount of web users first surpassed 200 million. That number is just 1 percent of its current global reach today.

Some of 1999’s strategies — like Bloomingdale’s offer for customers to make online purchases at an in-store kiosk with free shipping — have become an everyday, anyday feature of department stores in 2013.

Electronics Boutique, now known as “GameStop,” tried to make the checkout process a more intimate one before the Y2K bug throttled the tech world. Employees with portable cash registers and card scanners escaped the 4-foot checkout counter and completed transactions in the middle of the store, hoping the friendly interaction would encourage returning customers.

Other wholesome approaches, like Border’s transformation of its bookstore chain into an arts-and-crafts haven, were not met so favorably: The company filed for bankruptcy before the 2011 holiday season, when digital downloads accounted for 10 percent of all book sales.

Some flops — like in-store demonstrations by psychics trying to “predict” what customers would purchase in Chicago — were flashes in the pan altogether.

•••

So how are brick-and-mortar stores going to fight back against online shopping this year? Is there anything they can try this year that hasn’t been tried before?

Catherine Wells, group marketing director for CBL Properties — which owns Hamilton Place and Northgate malls in Chattanooga — said the answer isn’t about new tricks, but a familiar, memorable shopping experience:

Online retailers may be efficient, but there’s a certain abstract feeling that comes with shopping for the holidays in person: the two malls will feature gift-wrapping by non-profit volunteers. The Salvation Army will be collecting clothing donations for its “angel tree,” given to families in need. Local choral groups and dance troupes will be on hand to serenade the season.

These jovial features, she says, simply cannot be matched by any point-and-click experience.

“Hamilton Place and Northgate Mall are more than great shopping places,” Wells said. “They are the heart of the communities which we serve.”

Contact staff writer Jeff LaFave at 423-757-6592 or jlafave@timesfreepress.com.

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