I broke one of my cardinal online shopping rules last night: I paid for shipping.
Yes, free shipping deals are in abundancethese days as pressure from Amazon.com's Prime program has forced retailers to lower the bar on free shipping offers. But it was such a good deal—and so convenient—that for me the $9.99 shipping fee was worth it.
I snagged a Nintendo Wii bundle at Best Buy for $169.99. That was the same deal other shoppers were chasing as they stood in the cold and rain at the Best Buy near my house. So click, the shipping charge was well worth it, and more so when I think about the Davenports.
The Davenports are the family that made headlines when they arrived at a St. Petersburg, Fla., Best Buy on Nov. 17, making them the first people in the country to stake a place in line for the Black Friday madness.
For the Davenports, part of the fun clearly was the bragging rights—why else would you arrive nine days ahead. For their trouble, Best Buy rewarded them with a free Apple iPad, but Lorie Davenport told a local reporter that she was a bit disappointed by the ads.
"You know, I think some more items might have been able to put on sale (sic) this year but with the economy the way it is, I'm sure Best Buy did the best they could," she said.
I'm not sure what kind of deal I would need to get me to camp in front of a store for more than a week, but there are plenty who love the thrill of the hunt.
Bigger Crowds, but What Next?
Certainly, this year's Black Friday crowds lived up to the forecasts, and were bigger than last year. But here comes the important question for investors: what next?
Black Friday shoppers are the deal hunters. They get lured by the sales. But it's the blocking and tackling that goes on after Black Friday that wins—or loses—the season for retailers.
Retail CEOs who appeared on CNBC Friday morning sounded upbeat for the most part. Several talked about the signs they were seeing that consumers are starting to spend more on items they "want" rather than only on items they "need."
Brookstone's CEO said the luxury consumer was back, Macy's CEO said sales were trending ahead of last year, and Toys 'R Us' CEO said parents are looking for gifts that "wow."
Perhaps the most cautious-sounding comment came from Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn.
"What we are really seeing with the consumer is that the consumer is being very careful and thoughtful about their purchases," he said.
And that has been what we have been seeing. Although there is certainly continues to be more discussion about how consumers are starting to unleash some of that pent-up demand.
"Consumers are starting to be less concerned about price and more concerned about finding the right item," said Alison Paul, vice chairman and retail sector leader at Deloitte LLP. Paul also expects that more shoppers this year will purchase items for themselves as they do their holiday shopping.
One very telling sign is that we are hearing that the items that are selling well are toys and electronics, which are obviously more discretionary purchases than socks and underwear.
Kmart and Sears saw strong sales of seasonal items such as Christmas trees, consumer electronics and toys, according to Sears Holdings spokesmanTom Aiello.
But he remained in the consumers are "very value conscious" camp.
"They are shopping around," he said in an interview with CNBC.com. "They are doing their homework and are determined to get a good deal."
There's no denying that.
Kevin Strawbridge, CEO of price comparison Web site Dealtaker.com, said visitors to his company's site are up "very significantly" from last year. And those visitors are finding seeing steep discounts in the prices of televisions, Blu-Ray and DVD players, MP3 players, and even for some lower-quality types of 3-D television sets, he said.
Despite all the early discounting that retailers have been doing since Halloween, there was "a clear message that Black Friday is a big event," Strawbridge added.
More Black Friday Deals Online
As for my discovery of Best Buy's Black Friday bargain on the company's Web site, Strawbridge isn't surprised. He said about 40 percent of all retailers were offering the same Black Friday deals at both their physical and online stores.
Strawbridge expects this is only the beginning of a deeper integration of retailers online and bricks-and-mortar locations that is being fueled by the great use of mobile devices to research product prices.
"There is greater transparency," he said.
That integration may have diluted some of the punch behindCyber Monday promotions. But there still will be plenty of deals to be had on Monday and in the weeks ahead.
Sears, for example, will continue to cut prices and hold door-buster deals on Friday, Saturday and Sunday each weekheading into the Christmas holiday as it has since Halloween.
And no doubt other retailers will make an assessment after this weekend and determine how to proceed for the rest of the season. It will be then that we see if the 15 percent to 20 percent markdowns we've been seeing become the 20 percent to 25 percent discounts in the weeks ahead.
And I'll be very upset if that Wii bundle gets marked down, especially if the shipping is included.
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