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Shopping Doesn’t Have To Be A Drag

First there was “Black Friday.” Then there was “Cyber Monday.” The holiday shopping markers plod through the calendar like a procession of Groundhog Days. The big difference is that Punxsutawney Phil the groundhog sometimes offers surprise. Will he see his shadow this year or bite his handler?

The latest retailing news predictably relates the change in consumers’ shopping habits — the move from bricks-and-mortar stores to online merchants. The convenience of online buying and an aversion to crowds are the usual explanations, and they no doubt play a part.

But there’s another reason for the change in shopping habits. It’s the change in selling habits. The mall-ification of America has made shopping a bore.

From 1970 to 2009, retail space in America grew by 54 percent. Almost all that new square footage went into malls populated by chain stores featuring the same layout, the same signage, the same merchandise made in the same low-wage countries. Once inside a chain outlet, shoppers can’t easily tell whether they’re in Columbus, Ohio, or Birmingham, Alabama.

Of course, many of us still go to malls. It’s not always easy to find socks or running shoes elsewhere. However, one no longer has to patronize Circuit City for electronics, which is why Circuit City is gone.

This is not a bah-humbug to shopping. I love shopping. This is a bah-humbug to sameness.

And though the convenience of online shopping is undeniable, the inconveniences can be understated. Will you be home when the package arrives? If the item turns out to be defective, whom do you call? Even if the cyber-merchant offers a liberal return policy, it’s still a pain to rewrap and lug the box to the post office or parcel service.

The item in the delivered box may turn out to be quite inferior to the consumer fantasy represented in pixels. And though this may be nobody’s fault, the red seen on the screen is often very different from the red reality.

My closets and shelves contain some items with which I would never have left a physical store. These were borderline disappointments — products I didn’t entirely adore but that were not so off base that they merited the hassle of a return.

Conventional malls do try to impart the holiday cheer of our lost Main Streets, still portrayed in Christmas movies as American dreamscapes. But installing some lonely chairs and cafe tables, overhead twinkles and the occasional restaurant where a human actually serves you usually isn’t enough to get the magic going.

So commercial real estate developers are trying to “reimagine” the mall experience. As The Wall Street Journal reports, a developer in York, Pennsylvania, has taken down a mall’s roof and made a plaza. Another in Fort Worth, Texas, is leaving some old oak trees at the center of a project, linking the grove to a walking trail along the Trinity River. Yet another in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has taken down a mall building, built “streets” and incorporated a hotel and offices.

Many downtowns once given up for dead, meanwhile, are attracting small retailers selling more unusual and curated goods. And they’re hosting one of the most ancient and popular retailing phenomena ever — farmers markets.

As malls try to make themselves more resemble these downtowns, a common-sense question arises. Why don’t the stores just move back downtown? Well, those who frequent revived downtowns often complain that the chains already have.

But that’s what we call a high-class problem. Let the Banana Republic move next door to the quirky little shop selling hand-knit sweaters from Tibet. Together they’ll attract the shopping and reveling public — and better resist the online onslaught.

And they’ll make shopping fun again.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2015 CREATORS.COM

Shoppers take part in Black Friday Shopping at a Target store in Chicago, Illinois, United States, November 27, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young

Black Friday Crowds Thin After U.S. Stores Open On Thanksgiving

By Nathan Layne and Nandita Bose

PITTSBURGH/CHICAGO (Reuters) — Crowds were thin at U.S. stores and shopping malls in the early hours of Friday, initial spot checks showed, as shoppers responded to early Black Friday discounts with a mix of enthusiasm and caution.

Many shoppers headed out to stores on Thanksgiving evening, a month before Christmas, reflecting the new normal in U.S. holiday shopping, which was traditionally kicked off the next day, Black Friday.

In an effort to attract the most eager holiday shoppers and fend off competition from Amazon.com Inc (AMZN.O), U.S. retailers have increasingly extended their holiday deals by opening stores on the evening of Thanksgiving.

“It’s still early, and from what we are seeing so far the crowds are good but not great,” Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, said late on Thursday. The retail consultancy had 18 members studying customer traffic in different parts of the country.

Milagros Munez, 39, a law clerk, was shopping for toys at the Target store in New York’s Harlem neighborhood. “We actually came early this morning to miss the crowds. Now that some stores are open all night, I feel like more people go in the evening.”

The Macy’s Inc (M.N) store at Water Tower Place mall in Chicago saw thin crowds in the early hours of Friday after a fairly busy Thanksgiving evening, store associates said.

Nia Darrell, a 23-year-old student, was shopping for coats and handbags at the store with two friends.

“I shopped online yesterday and picked up most of what I wanted,” she said.” I’m out because Black Friday is more like a tradition but the discounts are similar even online this year.”

ONLINE SALES STRONG

Shoppers in the United States spent more than $1 billion online, 22-percent more than last year, between midnight and 5 pm ET on Thursday, according to the Adobe Digital Index, which tracked 100 million visits to 4,500 U.S. retail sites.

Many stores around the country were full on Thanksgiving evening. Local media reported brawling shoppers at a packed Kentucky mall on Thursday evening, forcing a police officer to intervene and break up the fight.

Early Black Friday discounts at stores and online included buy one get 50 percent off on the second “Star Wars” toys at Target Corp (TGT.N), $200 off quadcopter drones at Best Buy Co Inc (BBY.N), and a 50-inch Samsung smart TV for $499 at Wal-Mart Stores Inc (WMT.N).

As much as 20 percent of holiday shopping is expected to be done over the Thanksgiving weekend this year, analysts said. The four-day shopping burst will help set the tone for the rest of the season, signaling to retailers whether they need to drop prices or change promotions.

The shopping season spanning November and December is crucial for many retailers because the two months can account for anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of their annual sales.

Shoppers are expected to be cautious with their spending again this year. The National Retail Federation is expecting holiday sales to rise 3.7 percent, slower than last year’s 4.1 percent growth rate, due to stagnant wages and sluggish job growth.

At around 6 am on Friday, several hundred cars were in the parking lot wrapping the Ross Park mall in Pittsburgh. There was a good crowd walking the mall although it was not overly crowded.

Jorgette Clark, 27, said her budget would probably be lower this year because her husband works in the energy industry.

“I feel like we scaled back this year. Our husbands work in the oil fields… It’s probably a smaller Christmas this year.”

(Additional reporting by Kylie Gumpert in New York, Writing by Nandita Bose in Chicago; Editing by Nick Zieminski)

Photo: Women sit outside after shopping at Macy’s Herald Square store during the early opening of the Black Friday sales in Manhattan, Nov. 27, 2015. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

Is Black Friday Dying?

By Gregory Karp, Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Black Friday shopping this year will continue to have sizzle for the serious shopper, but the urgency to hit the stores early could be diminished because door-buster deals won’t happen only on Friday — and won’t necessarily involve doors, as more bargains are duplicated online.

That’s why experts say it might not be worth fighting store crowds this year, unless you’re the type who enjoys a little retail blood sport en route to scoring bargain TVs, video games and Star Wars toys.

“Black Friday is quickly losing its meaning on many fronts,” said Neil Stern, senior partner at Chicago-based retail consulting firm McMillanDoolittle. “Yes, there will be deals and door busters Friday morning, but they are really becoming an antiquated concept.”

For example, Black Friday has decidedly spilled backward into Thursday, with Thanksgiving store hours the norm among major retailers. Although for the first time in years, they aren’t pushing to go much earlier, with many sticking with openings around 6 p.m., presumably after many turkeys are already carved and consumed.

“A fairly decent number of retailers have pretty much thrown in the towel and are opening on Thursday,” Stern said.

If Black Friday is dying, that doesn’t mean holiday shopping is too.

An estimated 135.8 million people are expected to shop online and in stores over Thanksgiving weekend, which includes Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday — invented as a seasonal nod to smaller retailers — and Sunday. Yet more people may shop on Cyber Monday than any of the other days, according to a retail federation survey.

Holiday spending in general is expected to rise 3.7 percent this year, to $630.5 billion, or an average of about $805 per shopper, according to the National Retail Federation. That’s above the 10-year average of 2.5 percent.

Retailers, however, are posting mixed results leading into the holiday season.

Bellwethers like Nordstrom and Macy’s recently posted disappointing third-quarter profits, and their share prices hit multiyear lows as investors worried about sales over the crucial Black Friday period. But days later Wal-Mart, Target and discount retailer TJX (T.J.Maxx and Marshalls) posted strong sales numbers.

Whatever retail results turn out to be, Black Friday from a consumer standpoint might be different this year, with more shoppers skipping the long lines outside a retailer early Friday morning. Indeed, Black Friday doesn’t even represent the kickoff to Christmas shopping anymore.

“Thanksgiving weekend shopping has evolved tremendously over the past few years and can no longer be seen as the start of the holiday season, though there’s no question it’s still important to millions of holiday shoppers and retailers of all shapes and sizes,” said Matthew Shay, CEO of the National Retail Federation. “There is a real sea change happening in retail when it comes to the how, when, where and why of holiday shopping.”

Two primary factors diminish the importance of Black Friday: spreading out the bargains to other days and putting door-buster deals online.

“A large number of retailers are already doing pre-Black Friday sales, where they are effectively going on promotion now,” Stern said.

Some 60 percent of shoppers had started holiday shopping by Nov. 10, a retail federation survey showed.

Even some of the nation’s largest bricks-and-mortar retailers, Wal-Mart and Target, are offering the same deals online as in-store. “So, the need to wake up early, join the line and stampede, becomes less relevant,” Stern said.

Another factor is the realization that Black Friday prices don’t even represent the best of the year, deal watchers say.

And the frenzy, secrecy and gamesmanship of Black Friday ads — door-buster deals being “leaked” online, sometimes on purpose — seems to be a thing of the past, with more stores openly releasing ad circulars far ahead of when printed ones appear in newspapers. Wal-Mart, for example, released its circular on Nov. 12 through its mobile app. Target released its ad on its website a couple of days earlier.

Some of the largest retailers demonstrate the diminished importance of Black Friday.

—Wal-Mart. Open all day on Thanksgiving, this year Wal-Mart will begin Black Friday deals online at 2 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning, long before deals in its stores begin at 6 p.m. that day.

“For the first time ever, you’ll be able to get the vast majority of our Black Friday deals, available online and in stores,” said Steve Bratspies, Wal-Mart’s new chief merchandising officer. Specifically, 96 percent of deals will be available both places, he said.

Although, to promote simplicity, Wal-Mart is concentrating its deals this year around Black Friday instead of spreading out the deals across several events like it has in the recent past and as many other retailers are doing.

—Target. Target, also opening stores at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving, is taking the opposite tack, spreading deals over 10 days, Nov. 22 to Dec. 1. As it did last year for the first time, Target will have all its holiday deals both online and in-store.

Tina Tyler, Target’s chief stores officer, said those moves could diminish the importance of Black Friday itself, but from a business standpoint, that’s not the intent. “It’s about getting more trips with the guest,” she said. “It’s not about spreading the one trip out.”

Target is offering a goody for shopping specifically on Friday. Those who spend $75 or more on Black Friday online or in-store get a 20 percent one-use discount coupon for a future purchase — not just one item but the whole shopping trip — on any day between Dec. 4 and Dec. 13.

—Kmart. Its door-buster deals will start an hour later than many others, at 7 p.m. on Thanksgiving, and go until 2 p.m. the next day. It, too, is spreading out deals to days other than Black Friday. For example, its Shop Your Way club members have access to Kmart’s Black Friday door busters online on Nov. 21 and 22. And for the first three Wednesdays of December, it will host Black Wednesday sales online. That’s in addition to bringing back its famed Bluelight Special flash sales, which will endure beyond the holiday shopping season.

—Sears. Kmart sister company Sears also offered an early members-only sale, in-store 6-9 p.m. Sunday and online 3 p.m. Sunday until noon Monday. Then closer to Black Friday, it will have two rounds of door busters, from its opening at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving to 2 a.m., and then again starting at 5 a.m. on Black Friday.

—Best Buy. The chain bucked the trend and will open slightly earlier on Thanksgiving, at 5 p.m. for door busters, followed by a second round of door busters 8 a.m. Friday at most stores.

—Toys R Us. The retailer also opens at 5 p.m. Thursday. It planned early access to deals in-store and online for its loyalty members, starting Sunday. The “majority” of its deals will be online as well as in-store, beginning 10 p.m. Wednesday, it said. Sister store Babies R Us will be closed on Thanksgiving.

—Macy’s. Black Friday deals at most stores start at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving through 1 p.m. Friday, as well as all day Thursday at macys.com. Deals start up again Saturday 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

—Amazon. The online megaretailer started a week before Black Friday, with deals every five minutes and continuing for eight days, through Black Friday. It also has 10 “Deals of the Day” sales starting at midnight on Thanksgiving, and up to 10 more on Black Friday, it said.

This year, one major retailer decided to just abstain from Black Friday.

Outdoors outfitter REI made a splash about not only staying closed on Thanksgiving — as are Nordstrom, Costco, Sam’s Club, T.J.Maxx and Pier 1 Imports, among others — but also closing its 143 stores on Black Friday this year while paying its employees to “go outside.”

“We believe that being outside makes our lives better,” REI CEO Jerry Stritzke wrote in a note on the retailer’s website. “And Black Friday is the perfect time to remind ourselves of this essential truth.

“We’re a different kind of company — and while the rest of the world is fighting it out in the aisles, we’ll be spending our day a little differently. We’re choosing to opt outside…”

Of course, if you don’t like the outdoors and by Friday you’ve had your fill of turkey and relatives, perhaps recreational shopping and throwing a few elbows in the aisles might be just the diversion you’re looking for.

©2015 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Powhusku via Wikimedia Commons

 

5 Signs You May Be On A Compulsive Shopping Binge

By Susan Tompor, Detroit Free Press (TNS)

You don’t need to have a “shopping addiction” to overspend during the “All I want for Christmas is more” season. Triggers encouraging you to buy more and save more are everywhere.

But if you want to hold on to some of your cash, it can help to consider if you’re about to get trapped in a compulsive shopping binge. Here are some of the signs of trouble:

— Do you walk like a zombie-shopper toward flash sales and today-only specials?

A big trigger for online shoppers is the “flash sale.” Customers who sign up for texts and emails from certain online retail sites complain of being tempted daily or even a few times a day by all sorts of “limited-time” specials, according to Terrence Daryl Shulman, author of “Bought Out and $pent!” and a counselor of compulsive shoppers.

Maybe the “super savings” last only two hours. But the time limit — much like all those early morning Black Friday specials — create a sense of urgency and a shopper’s rush. Shulman said he’s had a number of female clients say the alerts contributed to overspending. The shoppers had to put a stop to the texts.

“They’re like crack, and they often have to unsubscribe to them,” Shulman said.

Traditional retailers are creating that limited-time feel with their sales, too. Kmart recently brought back its Bluelight Specials, which run in every store, every day and, no surprise, are offered at Kmart.com, too.

— Are you ashamed to admit that all those holiday shopping trips really aren’t working for you?

A variety of legitimate reasons exist for slamming the brakes on gift buying — a job loss, loss of overtime pay, concerns about a limited retirement plan or a small amount of college savings. And some people need to control shopping because they’re dealing with an addiction.

“Some people really get such an adrenaline rush that it can overtake them,” said Shulman. Some studies indicate that about 6 percent of the population deals with compulsive spending, he said.

How do you stop spending way too much on gifts or having way too many people on your gift list?

“It would be great if you could tell people the truth,” Shulman said.

While many are too embarrassed to admit to troubles, it’s not all that unusual for friends to say they’d like to limit holiday spending or cut back. It can happen more often than one would think.

— Do you even know how much you are going to spend for the holidays?

One way to keep a clear head in the midst of Black Friday, Cyber Monday and every flash sale from now until the New Year is to actually sit down and decide how much you’ll spend in total for the holidays. Do you want to spend $400 or $700 on all the gifts, dinners, holiday outfits, baked goods, parties and donations?

“It’s much more than who is on your Christmas list,” said Katie Bossler, a financial counselor for the GreenPath Debt Solutions office in Detroit.

Bossler, 35, said her family turned to the secret Santa idea maybe six or seven years ago when some family members dealt with layoffs during an economic downturn. The limit is $25. And she has creatively bought coffee, movie tickets, books, bottles of wine, even special steaks from the butcher as gifts. (You keep the meat frozen and then put it in the gift bag right before the exchange, she said.)

The idea is to buy something “very small but sweet.”

Bossler targets spending $300 on everything for the season, which she says is very doable. She plans to spend about $30 on a tree, another $30 on cards with postage, give cash tips to people in her everyday life who help her. Her friends don’t do gifts but get together for a holiday meal.

While some might not be running up big credit card debt, they could still be spending more than they need to do.

“Are you using savings that’s earmarked for something else?” she said.

— Can you play a game and just spend cash?

One trick is to take only cash with you on various shopping trips. If you want to spend only $40 on each gift on a given list, take an envelope, mark it with one name and stuff $40 in that envelope. Then spend only that amount on gifts for that person.

Or maybe you want to put a set amount of money on gift cards that you’d buy before you head to the store and later use to buy gifts. The idea is to figure out a way to control impulse spending.

Bossler said such an envelope system can help you avoid being tempted by adding on other items or accessories just to take advantage of sales or buy something cute.

“You can’t overspend cash, but you can definitely overcharge a credit card,” she said.

Often during the holidays, sales or promotions challenge you to reach some limit, say being required to spend $100 to save $25.

Target, for example, has a new Black Friday deal this year in which shoppers who spend $75 or more on Nov. 27 will receive a 20 percent discount to use toward purchases on any day between Dec. 4 and Dec. 13.

Amazon.com was offering a free $10 promotional gift code for targeted customers who bought a $50 Amazon Gift Card, but the program is available only for specific customers through Nov. 30.

— Remember: Free isn’t necessarily free.

When shopping online or via catalog, one of the gotchas is often a spending limit to get the free shipping.

In some cases, shoppers can look at options for in-store pickup to avoid shipping costs.

Toys R Us, for example, recently lowered the minimum purchase required for free shipping from $49 to $19. Toys R Us offers six- to nine-day delivery for free shipping on purchases of $19 or more. The shipping price goes up to $5.99 for a similar shipping schedule on orders under $19. But one could opt for free in-store pickup on any order and avoid shipping costs entirely.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Susan Tompor is the personal finance columnist for the Detroit Free Press. She can be reached at stompor@freepress.com.

©2015 Detroit Free Press. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: A shopper buys a TV inside Best Buy as the store opens in Newport, New Jersey November 27, 2014. Best Buy opened on Thanksgiving evening at 5pm, ahead of many other Black Friday retailers. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz