TERRE HAUTE — Surreal is an overused word. So few moments in life actually live up to its definition.
Your first fistfight. Climbing out of a storm cellar after a tornado. And shopping on Black Friday.
The latter can feel like a mix of the first two, for the unprepared.
A couple years ago, I completed that surrealistic hat trick on the day after Thanksgiving, also known as “Black Friday” — the official start of the Christmas shopping season. (My first dustup happened when I was a kid, and we did the “Twister” thing in ’93.) Our first stop was Toys R Us. Sunrise was hours away. As we drove through the pre-dawn darkness and pulled around a corner, the store’s parking lot came into view. It overflowed like that foamy filler you spray into cracks around doors. Inside, shoppers who knew exactly what they wanted grabbed it, and tossed it into their cart. I gawked, as if driving past a car crash, as we stood in the checkout lines, which snaked endlessly backward through the aisles.
Later, the same thing happened at Menards. It took coffee and an Ultimate Omelet at Denny’s for me to regain my composure.
Now, in 2009, retailers wonder if the wildly surreal rush will still happen this Friday morning. The longest, deepest recession since the 1930s has ended, economists say, and the recovery has begun. But that comeback will be painfully slow. High unemployment will linger.
So will people still queue up for doorbuster sales at Terre Haute shopping hotspots?
Retailers — toughened, wiser and leaner after a 22-month downturn — are cautiously hoping for the best.
“I think everybody looks at this [Black Friday] with more apprehension,” said Todd Peterson, store manager at J.C. Penney in Honey Creek Mall. “There are still a lot of questions.”
The last Black Friday, of 2008, was rough. Financial markets had collapsed, with stunning speed, and the outgoing Bush administration hastily crafted Wall Street bailouts. Thousands of Americans lost jobs. Millions feared the same fate. Consumers tightened their holiday spending.
They may spend a bit more freely this year. A national poll of 100 leading retailers — the Retail Compass Survey by BDO Seidman’s — predicts a slight 1.8 increase in sales on Black Friday and “Cyber Monday.” The latter is the Monday after Black Friday, when many Americans complete (or begin) their seasonal shopping online.
In Indiana, such sales are expected to rise a modest 1 percent. “That’s a pretty small increase, and reflective of the economic times we’re living in right now,” said Grant Monahan, president of the Indiana Retail Council.
In October, 9.8 percent of Hoosiers in the workforce were jobless. “Even people who have a job are cautious with their family budget,” Monahan said. “They’re going to pull in the reins a bit.”
That’s what John Raymer, 23, and Mandy Hollingsworth, 21, plan to do. As the two Paris, Ill., residents strolled through Honey Creek Mall last week, Raymer said his holiday buying would be done “definitely more carefully.” He just got laid off from his job. Raymer and Hollingsworth will avoid Black Friday shopping, primarily because of the craziness.
But their cautiousness, as consumers, is something retailers understand. People who do shop on Black Friday will come with a different objective.
“We’ve seen a definite transition from wants to needs,” Peterson said, adding that Penney’s marketing has adjusted to that shift.
Last Thursday as she walked through Honey Creek Mall, Cindy Keltz was still mulling whether she’ll hit the stores on Black Friday. Keltz, a mom and pharmaceutical employee from Clinton, usually has to work on the day after Thanksgiving. This year, she has that day off. The tight economy has Keltz thinking carefully about holiday spending.
“That’s why I want to check what kinds of ads are out — do some comparative pricing,” she said. “And then I’ll decide whether I want to go out or not.”
Despite the economy, some good, old-fashioned, elbow-to-elbow shopping will happen. Peterson’s store will open at 4 o’clock Friday morning. “We’re going to open our doors at 4 a.m., and there will be people in lines at 4 a.m.,” he said, chuckling. “So you have to be a professional to do that.”
He was kidding. Most people don’t get paid to shop, though rookie Black Friday shoppers will feel like they should be. By “professionals,” Peterson meant “experienced.”
Joshua Long saw those types when he worked Black Friday at a Best Buy in Los Angeles. “It was just unbelievable,” Long said. “It looked like a rock concert.” A Terre Haute native, Long lived in the West for several years before moving back to his hometown a year ago. He now manages FYE in Honey Creek Mall. “I’m anxious to see how [Black Friday] goes here.”
Certainly, the day attracts throngs of those “professionals” — people paying close attention to newspaper, TV, radio and Web ads, and the price wars among Walmart, Sears and others. Some stores benefit from the aftermath of the early morning, doorbuster madness at the big-box outlets.
That’s the case with the Conservatory of Music, a 60-year-old Terre Haute retailer of instruments, equipment and private lessons. That shop, which moved from its longtime location at Riverside Plaza to West Honey Creek Drive just west of the mall, will open at 9 a.m. All the employees will be working that day. “Nobody gets Black Friday off,” owner Jim Quinlan said. Still, the Black Friday crowds don’t typically reach the Conservatory until late morning.
“The last few years, we’ve seen people come in about, oh, 11-ish, just looking like roadkill,” Quinlan said, grinning. “They’ve just been through the ringer.”
Traditionally, the buzz slows by midafternoon, but doesn’t disappear. It picks back up on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. “Black Friday is really those two days,” Quinlan said. “And then on Sunday, we all just collapse and watch football.”
By the time next Sunday arrives, retailers hope shoppers didn’t just wear themselves out by walking around. With modest expectations, they’re counting on customers to buy a few extras, in addition to those tagged with deep doorbuster discounts. Rod Henry, president of the Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce, heard that concern from several retailers he spoke with last week.
Surprisingly, most anticipated Black Friday 2009 with some guarded optimism. Many who’ve survived the Great Recession figure “they’re over the hump,” Henry said. “I didn’t hear any gloom or doom. … I didn’t sense that this was a make-or-break [Black Friday] — ‘if-we-don’t-do-well,-we’re-locking-the-door’ kind of thing.”
Doors to stores and shops will be wide open for most of this Friday and Saturday. At FYE, Joshua Long will be ready at 7 a.m. — with a store full of music CDs, movie DVDs, magazines and video games — waiting curiously.
“We hope we have a good day,” he said.
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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