Holiday Retail Rush Kicks Off

NEW YORK — Retailers are hoping that Black Friday and Cyber Monday will be the beginning of a bountiful holiday season.

The National Retail Federation estimated that 138 million shoppers will hit stores over the post-Thanksgiving Day weekend, up from 134 million last year. And many footwear retailers are trying to lure them in with promotions and ramped-up marketing efforts.

York, Pa.-based department store Bon-Ton Stores Inc. is aiming to cash in on eager Black Friday shoppers with special discounts. “The day after Thanksgiving is all about door busters and the rush,” said Barbara Schrantz, EVP of sales and promotions. Emu boots, a store exclusive, will be a main feature in the company’s Black Friday direct marketing pieces.

JCPenney is adding social media to its range of holiday shopping promotions this season. Shoppers will be offered mobile coupons for checking into a store location on Foursquare or Facebook’s check-in application.

Independent retailers, meanwhile, are banking on must-have product to drive sales.

“We’re setting ourselves up for big business,” said Gary Weiner, president of Saxon Shoes in Richmond, Va. “We’ve really concentrated inventory to items that we know are going to be home runs.”

Although Weiner said his overall inventory matches last year’s holiday season, his stores have stocked up on boot styles from Ugg, Dansko, Hunter and Frye. Besides boots, Weiner is also expecting Vibram Five Fingers to be a big hit.

Online retailer Karmaloop.com is gearing up for the busy holiday season, aiming to end the year with $85 million to $95 million in sales, according to owner Greg Selkoe.

“We’ve seen gains in the past five weeks,” he said. “I’m hoping it’ll carry us into Black Friday and Cyber Monday.”

In anticipation of increased site traffic, Selkoe said his team had strengthened the site’s servers.

Shoebuy.com President and CEO Scott Savitz predicted that more than a million users will log onto the site between Black Friday and Cyber Monday. “We’re really expecting traffic to be much more robust than last year,” he said.

But not all retailers are as cheerful about holiday sales.

Steve Silver, owner of Next stores in Cleveland, was not setting his hopes high this season, although overall business is healthy, he said.

“We’re going to take it day-by-day,” said Silver. “We’re not going to do anything too dramatic to [drive sales].” With two of his locations inside shopping malls, Silver is counting on the extra foot traffic bringing more shoppers into his stores.

Lately, online retailers have been cutting into his business, Silver said, so he plans to add e-commerce soon. However, he is worried about what could be lost in the process. “We really pride ourselves on sales experience and customer service, which is something you lose by going online,” he said.

Russell Jones, director of global retail at consulting firm AlixPartners, said retailers would be wise to move online as increasing numbers of shoppers are making their purchases over the Web. “Online shopping is taking a bigger piece of the share every year and that’s going to be a challenge for retailers,” he said.

AlixPartners’ 2010 U.S. Holiday Spending Outlook Survey reported that 38 percent of consumers intend to buy holiday gifts online, up from 32 percent in 2009.

The survey also found that fewer shoppers plan to reduce spending this year, good news for both Web and brick-and-mortar stores.

Still, consumers will be cautious during the holiday season, making for a tough and competitive climate. “Unemployment is still high [and] the housing market is still pretty bad,” Jones said. “The best we can expect is weak gains overall, but some retailers will do a lot better than others.”

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