Retailers strive to prevent a blue 'Black Friday'

Best Buy employees Christine Salley, left, and Craig Cawthorne arrange a table in the front of the store in Rock Hill Tuesday in preparation for "Black Friday."
Best Buy employees Christine Salley, left, and Craig Cawthorne arrange a table in the front of the store in Rock Hill Tuesday in preparation for "Black Friday."

Area retailers, worried the sputtering national economy will discourage shoppers, have joined others nationwide offering incentives and steep discounts to gin up sales today, one of the year's biggest shopping days.

From national big boxes to local shops, retailers slashed prices early this year, rolling out in October deals normally reserved for the Thanksgiving holiday.

"We're trying to accommodate," said J.R. Edwards, a manager at Rock Hill's Best Buy.

The national chain cut prices and offered sales earlier than usual.

For example, Edwards said, GPS devices that sell for $179 to $249 have gone for $99.

After reporting the worst October sales in at least 39 years, stores face another round of weak sales in November, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers-Goldman Sachs Index, which measures sales at stores opened at least a year.

The news has dampened expectations for the annual shopping bonanza "Black Friday."

The Friday after Thanksgiving was once the point in the year when retailers started to turn a profit, moving "out of the red and into the black" -- hence the name Black Friday.

November 28 -- last year's biggest sales generator of the season -- isn't a predictor of the holiday season, but more of a barometer of people's willingness to spend, said Burt Flickinger III, managing director of Strategic Resource Group.

"It sets the tone," said Flickinger, who predicts total Black Friday sales will be 3 percent lower this year compared to last year.

Beyond sales, retailers have unleashed a host of gimmicks to coax shoppers out of their homes today.

The Rock Hill Galleria plans to hand a $50 gift certificate to the first 250 people in the door when the mall opens at 5 a.m.

Even layaway is making a comeback. The once popular practice that lets shoppers make interest-free payments on an item until it's paid off gave way to in-store financing.

Kmart, a division of Sears, has been heavily promoting its layaway program this year.

Smaller stores are following the lead of the chains.

"We're just trying to match pace with what everybody else is doing," said David Shook, part-owner of Old Town Outfitters, a Rock Hill business in its sixth year. Old Town this year cut prices about two weeks earlier than usual.

Shook said shoppers seem to be keeping wallets closed.

"Definitely people are doing a lot more scouting than shopping," he said.

Nonetheless, Shook and other area retailers remain optimistic.

"I think it's going to be an even larger turnout than last year," Best Buy's Edwards said.

They might be right. Not everyone around Rock Hill is penny-pinching.

"We're just doing what we did last year," said York resident Sharon McCoy. "The holidays only come once."

"I don't think (the economy) will affect how many people I buy for or how much I give to charities," said Rock Hill resident Cheryl Geddings, who plans to brave the early morning crowds of bargain hunters today.

At least one store is sticking to business as usual. Woody's Music doesn't have any special plans for Black Friday.

"I'm not worried," said manager Ed Donohue.

While Woody's has cut prices for several guitar packages, the shop's strategy holds steady. It sells new and used CDs, films, musical instruments and memorabilia. The staff also installs intercom systems and offers music lessons.

"We've been here 15 years," Donohue said, "and have a pretty good customer base, which helps."

Rock Hill Galleria manager Jeff Kirby hopes for strong sales today but said it's tough to gauge how it'll pan out.

"I don't know that anyone is going to predict what's going to happen on Black Friday," he said. "That's like trying to predict the weather."