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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Harrison Wright, 4, browses at the front display inside of Journey's Kids at the Hamilton Place Mall on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

When it comes to holiday shopping this year, the prices may be higher, the pickings may be slimmer and you might be running late if you haven't already started, economic and retail experts say.

"For the most part, people shouldn't expect as much of a discount, and while there might be a better offer coming up, it might not be worth waiting for that depending on what you're trying to buy," said Frank Butler, professor of management at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. "For the people who are the last-minute shoppers, pretend like this is Christmas Day. Shop now."

As the pandemic persists and online shopping habits grow, the day after Thanksgiving has lost some of its doorbuster luster as the traditional kickoff of the holiday shopping season, said Stacey Keating, vice president of corporate communications for Chattanooga-based CBL Properties, the owner of 61 malls including Hamilton Place and Northgate.

"I definitely think with the supply chain issues, people have started their shopping much earlier than in years past," she said. "Holiday shopping over the last few years has been expanded, and Black Friday isn't necessarily the traditional kickoff it has been."

But it's still an occasion for many folks, even if the holiday buying begins long before Thanksgiving, she added.

"I go with my mom and our friends. We've grown up with it," Keating said. "It's a way to spend time with family after Thanksgiving. We see a lot of people wearing matching outfits and truly making it an event."

Many retailers have been running Black Friday deals all month, trying to spread out demand in the face of crimped supply chains and shipping delays.

Huck & Peck furniture store owner Michael Turner said the hot housing market and new stay-at-home lifestyles mean furniture is a more popular holiday gift, but shoppers need to be prepared to buy what's already in stock if they aren't willing to wait. And wait. And wait.

"We have seen delays on custom orders, but where I have made up for that is having a plethora of stock," he said. "I have over 80 sofas in stock, so when people come in and ask how long will a custom sofa take, and I have to say 25 weeks, usually we can find them something in stock."

Tighter inventories and manufacturing and shipping delays are also driving price hikes, Turner added.

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Black Friday loses some luster in Chattanooga area

"The real issue that I think the industry as a whole is dealing with is there is an inflation situation because everybody has added costs, and those costs trickle down," he said. "I have pieces on my floor where I may have four chairs at $199 but to reorder them it's $279."

Butler said he thinks some suppliers may be seizing the moment to get the most they can for their products.

"I think some companies are taking advantage of the situation who aren't experiencing supply chain issues," he said. "Some of them are seeing record profits, and they're not having to run the sales like they used to. The retailers are starting to see this whole idea that we don't have to flood the market and run these sales."

But many industries do have serious supply problems, including manufacturers of the chips that power our electronics, he said. Ports are backed up, manufacturing is disrupted and, this year in particular, it pays to plan ahead — though many people tend not to do that, Butler said.

"My concern would be as we get closer to Black Friday itself, the consumer behavior is still out there, and then you roll into Cyber Monday," he said. "If you're not already getting it done, you might be holding an empty bag for Christmas."

Despite the challenges, consumers flush with cash will drive record shopping in 2021, predicted the National Retail Federation.

Holiday spending forecast

2021 prediction: $843 billion to $859 billion

2020: $777.3 billion

2019: $718.6 billion

2018: $691.5 billion

2017: $679.2 billion

2016: $646.7 billion

2015: $628.2 billion

Source: National Retail Federation

Holiday sales during November and December will grow between 8.5% and 10.5% over 2020 to between $843.4 billion and $859 billion, the federation predicted. In 2020, holiday spending grew 8.2% to $777.3 billion, for an average increase of 4.4% over the past five years.

Foot traffic and spending at CBL's properties has rebounded to 2019 levels, suggesting a busy in-person shopping season ahead, Keating said.

"We've seen traffic and sales rebound to pre-pandemic levels," she said. "Sales through the end of the third quarter were up 17% portfolio-wide compared to 2019."

Many consumers are in a good position to spend, and they'll likely pay higher prices than in years past, said Jack Kleinhenz, the federation's chief economist.

"Pandemic-related supply chain disruptions have caused shortages of merchandise and most of this year's inflationary pressure," Kleinhenz said in a release about holiday shopping trends.

"With the prospect of consumers seeking to shop early, inventories may be pulled down sooner and shortages may develop in the later weeks of the shopping season. However, if retailers can keep merchandise on the shelves and merchandise arrives before Christmas, it could be a stellar holiday sales season."

Contact Mary Fortune at mfortune@timesfreepress.com. Follow her on Twitter at @maryfortune.

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