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Black Friday, You're Dead to Me

It seems Black Friday, the traditional first day of the holiday shopping season, has lost some of its shine.

The retail phenomenon, which began in the 1960s, occurs each year on the day after Thanksgiving, when stores across the country slash prices on everything from laptops to the hottest Christmas toys. Limited supplies fuel a frenzy among sleep-deprived bargain hunters who brave the crowds and the cold to be first in line when the doors open wide.

Customers wait in line to pay for their items on Black Friday at KB Toys in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.
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Customers wait in line to pay for their items on Black Friday at KB Toys in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.

A survey by Persuadable Research for online shopping guide dealnews.com, however, found just 46 percent of respondents plan to “definitely” shop on Black Friday this year, a 12 percent drop from those who took to the stores in 2008.

Many are turned off by the long lines and rudeness from fellow shoppers, the survey shows. But for others, it’s a function of the economy, says Kathy Grannis, a spokesperson for the National Retail Federation in Washington.

“It is safe to say that Black Friday is no longer the beginning of the holiday shopping season,” she says, noting retailers are finding new ways to reel in reluctant consumers. “More than 80 percent of shoppers this year said they planned to spend less on holiday merchandise, so in order to win them over retailers are coming out with hard-to-beat promotions two to three weeks early.”

Sears, K-Mart and Toys 'R Us did a lot better than that, rolling out Christmas in July sales over the summer.

E-tailers, including Amazon.com and eToys, which targeted last-minute shoppers in 2008 with e-gift cards guaranteed to “make it on time,” are also expected to promote themselves heavily to virtual buyers in the final days before Christmas.

Indeed, retailers no longer limit themselves to a single sales event, says Grannis, adding doorbuster deals on electronics, clothes and other gift items are expected to be robust throughout November and December across all retail categories.

“Retailers are all competing with each other right now,” she says. “There’s no definite line anymore of where people shop. Price wins out every time. You have department stores competing with discounters.”

Wal-Mart Stores , which offered the Xbox 360 gaming console for $199 with a free $100 e-gift card earlier this month, led the charge for 2009.

“They call them pre-Black Friday sales and they’re often as good, if not better, than a typical Black Friday promotion,” says Dan de Grandpre, editor of dealnews.comin Huntsville, Ala. “Wal-Mart’s Xbox deal, in fact, was matched by Amazon.com , which created a little price war. We love price wars.”

So does Ian Story, 31, a Seattle resident and online shopper who trolls the Web for hot deals two to three times a day — particularly this time of year.

“I used to be one of those guys who camped out all night (at his favorite stores) for Black Friday sales, but now I use a combination of return-buy and online shopping,” he says, noting “return-buy” is when you spot an upcoming discount on a hot product, buy it ahead of time, and return it for the lower price after it goes on sale. (Some retailers are cracking down on such returns so check the store’s policy before you buy.)

“Waiting in line all night is a logistical nightmare,” says Story. “These days, I’ll go online to a number of sites, including dealnews.com, and make a list of everything I want and wait until midnight on Friday, when a lot of stores start their sales. That’s actually 9 p.m. Thursday for those of us on the West Coast, so I can usually get everything I want without leaving the house.”

He’s not alone.

The survey by Persuadable Research found a majority of shoppers (59 percent) say they would rather shop online for Black Friday deals this year than fight the crowds.

In-store prices for online purchases and free shipping, offered by many big name brands, is expected to further inspire shoppers to steer clear of the mall this Thanksgiving weekend.

But the convenience factor isn’t the only reason the Internet has rendered Black Friday less relevant as a bellwether for holiday spending.

While retailers once kept doorbuster deals confidential until Thanksgiving Day, so as not to tip off their competitors, Web sites several years ago started leaking Black Friday advertising circulars weeks in advance, putting stores in a tough spot.

“Some of those circulars that got leaked were only for the Denver market, or some other metro area, and you’d have shoppers in New York City saying, ‘Hey, I found this circular online. What do you mean you’re not selling it for $19.99?’” says Grannis. “That retailer had to then deal with the fact that the consumer had seen it at that price.”

With promotional mishaps aplenty, retailers have increasingly opted to disclose their Black Friday discounts early to beat those Web sites to the punch — many making their items immediately available for sale.

While many shoppers are expected to boycott the madness this Black Friday, however, there are those who still find the long lines and elbow jabs a holiday rite of passage.

“I don’t know if the phenomenon of Black Friday will ever truly go away,” says Grannis. “It’s been around for a very long time and to some people it’s a tradition. There are still some stores which will stick to the original plan they’ve been doing for years, which is to not divulge their secret.”

As for Story, he’ll be trolling the Internet for Black Friday deals on Thanksgiving as usual, but the urgency he felt in year’s past is gone.

“I already have my Christmas gift for my wife for this year — and for 2010,” he says.