- The Washington Times - Monday, November 24, 2008

Shopping malls have been adorned with Christmas decorations for weeks, and most Santas showed up on the heels of Halloween, yet the holiday shopping season has not officially started.

Regardless of when customers may have bought their first gifts, the season does not officially begin until the day after Thanksgiving, known as Black Friday.

“People really start thinking about the holidays. It’s the official kickoff of the holiday season,” said Erin Hershkowitz, spokeswoman for the New York-based International Council of Shopping Centers.

This year, however, retail sales are expected to increase only slightly over last year as consumers pinch pennies in the economic downturn. Sales fell 3.3 percent from September to October, leaving retailers scrambling to find ways to survive what promises to be a challenging season.

“This year we’re hearing these doomsday predictions,” said Dawn Iacobucci, professor of marketing at the Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management in Nashville, Tenn.

She said retailers are responding with a method that appeals to all socioeconomic levels: bargains.

“Hunker down to the basics,” she said of the emphasis on price this shopping season, which began a little earlier than usual this year.

Despite the deep discounts that were being offered throughout November, many shoppers have been holding off on most of their shopping, according to the National Retail Federation’s 2008 Holiday Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey conducted by BIGresearch LLC of Worthington, Ohio.

According to the NRF survey, 72 percent of consumers have completed less than 10 percent of their shopping, ignoring advice that budget-conscious consumers should shop early this year.

“There is still a lot of shopping left to do,” said NRF Vice President Ellen Davis.

Of the 8,000 consumers contacted for the survey, about half had not started shopping at all.

Amid months of economic tumult and fears of a deep recession, some shoppers are simply not in the mood to buy. When they do, they look to stretch their dollars wherever possible. Many have put off purchases because they expect big bargains this Thanksgiving weekend, according to Ms. Davis.

“Many shoppers are waiting to see what retailers have up their sleeves for Black Friday weekend,” she said.

Malls and shopping centers are doing all they can to live up to these expectations, from extended hours to promotions to special events.

Malls are aware that although Black Friday may not be the biggest shopping day in terms of sales - that title belongs to the Saturday before Christmas, according to Ms. Hershkowitz - it is one of the biggest days in terms of traffic.

“This is pretty much the Super Bowl of shopping,” said Michele Rothstein, spokeswoman for Chelsea Property Group Inc., which owns Leesburg Corner Premium Outlets.

Outlet malls such as Leesburg are capitalizing on shoppers looking for the very best deals. Leesburg is opening at midnight on Black Friday for “Midnight Madness,” with some stores opting to open as early as 9 or 10 p.m.

“Each year we open, shoppers come earlier and earlier,” Ms. Rothstein said, adding that Leesburg Corner Premium Outlets has been opening at midnight on Black Friday for several years.

Potomac Mills, the Woodbridge, Va., mall owned by Simon Property Group Inc., will open at midnight for the first time and will offer 22 hours of continuous shopping.

“We’re creating a whole event out of it,” said Caroline Green, director of mall marketing and business development for Potomac Mills.

As a part of Simon’s “Shop Smarter” holiday campaign, Potomac Mills shoppers will be encouraged to take advantage of free coffee and chair massages.

The goal is to provide a fun, low-stress shopping experience for customers, Ms. Green said. At 7 p.m. on Thanksgiving evening, shoppers can visit the Potomac Mills Web site to see what special deals stores will be offering that night.

The appeal of midnight shopping and early hours is more than just the deals, Ms. Iacabucci said.

“It’s an oddly fun event,” she said, describing the excitement of being in a mall at a time when most people should be at home in bed.

She also cited a theory that the longer people stay in a mall, the more money they will spend, which makes staying open nearly 24 hours a worthwhile investment for malls.

Other malls choose to open early Friday. Lakeforest Mall in Gaithersburg and Fashion Centre at Pentagon City will open at 5 a.m. Black Friday.

“We’re providing a really comfortable place for people to feel the holiday spirit,” said Susan Davis, director of mall marketing and business management at Lakeforest Mall.

The first 300 shoppers in line at 8 a.m. Friday can participate in the mall’s fifth annual Pop and Shop, which allows them to pop a balloon containing gift cards and other freebies from stores throughout the mall.

Lakeforest Mall also will offer extra resting places, called “rejuvenation stations,” featuring big-screen televisions, free coffee, books and magazines.

Pentagon City will offer similar amenities when it opens at 5 a.m. “We’re here to try to make their experience a little more unique,” said Shane Kelley, director of mall marketing and business management.

Retailers and malls that choose to open earlier than usual are banking on the extra hours of shopping time giving them extra money in the cash registers, although they have no way of knowing what their sales would be if they did not.

“There will always be this nagging question of whether sales actually improve,” said Ms. Iacobucci.

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