Shoppers ring in the season

Wednesday, December 3, 2008
Lewisburg Electric crewmen Kevin Baker, in the bucket, Jimmy King, waving from the roof, and Jamie Wright, at right, help decorate the Marshall County Courthouse for Christmas.

As some Marshall County residents went shopping in the predawn hours of Black Friday, others had local merchants convinced that holiday shoppers are particularly picky this year.

The Thanksgiving weekend may not have been the disaster some feared, but unprecedented discounts and tempered buying led to soft sales as a buying binge on Friday fizzled. Then free shipping was offered on what the National Federation of Retailers calls "Cyber Monday," the Monday after Thanksgiving, an unofficial kickoff for online shopping.

"We started at ... 4:30 a.m.," Linda Boyce of Wheel said of a shopping trip with her daughter, Jeanie Burk of Caney Spring. "We've been to Nashville and to Franklin."

They'd been advised everything she wanted was sold by 5:30 a.m. at the Wal-Mart in Columbia, but she said, "Factory Connection is my best friend. You can get such good buys on clothes there."

Friday afternoon they were shopping at Tractor Supply Co.

They don't shop on "Black Friday" every year, but now they went to take advantage of sales.

"Every little bit counts," Boyce said. "My husband works at Sanford."

That company's factory here is closing within a year.

"We have to start paying attention now," she said. "All the jobs are leaving. It's having a big impact and it's going to get worse before it gets better."

Boyce may have completed most of her Christmas shopping Friday, but saw it as important for another reason: "We had a lot of mother and daughter time together. It was a joy just to spend the day by ourselves together."

Meanwhile, at the Food Lion grocery here two managers' comments foreshadowed national reports about merchants struggling to entice financially strapped shoppers to spend for the rest of the holiday season, which is expected to be the weakest in decades.

"One of the biggest things I've noticed is everybody was waiting for the big sales," says Steven Reed, assistant manager at the Food Lion grocery in Lewisburg.

"As far as food; I think people aren't buying as much because people have just had a big meal," Reed said.

It was, after all, the day after Thanksgiving.

"I've noticed that people aren't spending as much, over all, on food to save money for the holidays," Food Lion Grocery Manager Brian Wells said. "I've got friends at other groceries and we see that people are hitting the sales only."

Reed agreed.

"Routine customers would shop for a week," Reed said. "Now, they're shopping day to day for the next meal."

It wouldn't be uncommon to see more people at groceries selecting manager's specials on food with only one day before the label's expiration date.

"They're keeping (their bills) as low as they can," Reed said. "They're watching the papers and looking for sales.

"Canned food was bought on sale (for Thanksgiving) but not a turkey.

"Then, when the turkey was on sale, then they'd buy," Reed said.

He and Wells agree -- customers are saving for the holidays.

"And then, too, people have been laid off," Reed said. "I see a lot more conscientious shoppers."

While careful, they're still festive.

"The consumer clearly is showing us that there is a holiday to be had, but the consumer wants bigger deals," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD Group, a market research firm. "They're willing to wait it out at almost any price."

Cohen predicts sales for the Thanksgiving weekend, the traditional start of the holiday shopping season, were at best even with the holiday weekend a year ago.

At a store in Chapel Hill, a woman who couldn't be quoted by name said she'd seen more people use credit cards, leading her to conclude that people don't have cash to spend.

The National Retail Federation offered a rosier outlook for overall holiday spending, predicting that retail sales will rise 2.2 percent from a year ago. That would still be the slowest growth since 2002. But, many analysts expect the period could show a rare drop in sales, and Web shopping is being hit along with brick-and-mortar stores. Last year's holiday growth rate was 19 percent for online spending from the previous year.

Julie Wright of St. Louis, Mo., was visiting her father in Marshall County because he needs help and, after reports of frenzied Black Friday shopping, she said, "It's crazy. I just think the most important thing is human life."

In a New York City suburb, police were reviewing surveillance videos of a post-Thanksgiving shopper stampede that trampled a Wal-Mart worker to death, but they acknowledge it may be difficult to bring criminal charges.

"It felt a little freakish," customer Ellie Berhun, 48, told the Daily News. "Some man lost his life because a VCR was on sale? It's just too sad for words."

Police said temporary worker Jdimytai Damour was mowed down as about 2,000 bargain-hunters surged into the store at Friday's 5 a.m. opening, leaving a metal portion of the door-frame crumpled like an accordion.

Other workers were knocked to the ground as they tried to rescue Damour, and customers simply stepped over him and kept shopping even as the store announced it was closing because of the death, police and witnesses said.

At least four other people, including a woman eight months pregnant, were taken to hospitals for observation or treatment for minor injuries

"They said cops got hurt helping," recalled Wright from national reports. "That's why we didn't go out today. It's gotten too commercialized."

Wright and her sister, Misty Shouse of Chapel Hill, aren't buying Christmas presents this year so they'll be better able to help their father.

As for the mood of shoppers, Shouse said, "It's not what it used to be."

She had worked at a Home Depot store years ago and said she sees an unexpected mania among shoppers this season.

At Peebles in The Acres shopping center, assistant manager Jennifer Farler

"We've been really busy," Farler said. "We had people coming in as soon as we opened (at 7 a.m.). They were all in a good mood. I always like working the day after Thanksgiving."

As for her own Christmas shopping, Farler said, "I haven't even started. Maybe I'll go tonight. I'll probably buy a little bit less, but I say that every year."

A more complete sales picture of how the Thanksgiving shopping weekend fared will be known by Thursday, when the nation's retailers report November same-store sales, or sales at stores opened at least a year.

Still, the crowds that turned out for the early morning specials on Friday were a welcome relief to the nation's retailers -- who since mid-September have suffered from the most dramatic falloff in spending in decades amid a ballooning financial crisis.

Tribune Staff Writer Karen Hall and Senior Staff Writer Clint Confehr interviewed people in Marshall County for this report.