Let the holiday shopping begin . . . or maybe continue

Early Black Friday shoppers at JCPenney in Deptford look for the end of the line. The store opened at 3 p.m. on Thanksgiving.

Black Friday, the retail-industry equivalent of March Madness - when merchants make a final run to get their finances into the black - seizes the Philadelphia region with all its excess and over-the-top frenzy.

Seasoned seasonal-shopping observers say that for consumers, the quest to snatch the best deals has become akin to a blood sport, with the plotting and strategy more involved than ever.

A strong economy, low unemployment, and a public willing and confident to spend has experts predicting that this year's shopping tour de force will top last year's multibillion-dollar haul.

"We are projecting a somewhat robust holiday shopping season, with approximately a 3.6 percent to 4.0 percent increase over 2015," said William J. Park of Deloitte & Touche LLP, who watches retail in the Philadelphia region.

For 2016, the annual Deloitte Holiday Survey showed consumers nationally and within the Philadelphia area feeling positive about the economy overall and their own financial situations.

"However, the survey suggests that consumers may pull back on non-gift spending [entertaining, decorations for the home, etc.] this year," Park said. "The online trend will continue, with almost 50 percent of purchases to be made online vs. at the store.

"This could have a negative impact on 'big box' retailers, traditional malls, and local shops," he said. "Retailers dependent on foot traffic will have to entice the customer with unique product offerings and better prices."

As in previous years, most stores will launch Black Friday deals on Thanksgiving - long before the turkey and stuffing have settled in your stomach.

Most of the region's malls - including King of Prussia, Cherry Hill, Oxford Valley, Willow Grove Park, and the Gloucester and Philadelphia Premium Outlets - will open at 6 p.m. Thursday and close at either midnight or 1 a.m., only to reopen hours later for the Black Friday blowout, which at most malls will last until 10 p.m.

According to the National Retail Federation, spending during the 2016 holiday season - which includes the entire months of November and December - is expected to exceed $650 billion, a 3.6 percent increase over 2015.

Earlier shopping aside, Black Friday is still the official start to acquisitive activities.

Expect to see some hard core warriors in their tents outside Walmarts, Targets, or Best Buys. These big boxes will again slash the prices of electronics and HD TVs.

New local investments have ramped up for their first big retail day. King of Prussia Mall, with a new $250 million luxury wing, expects to host more than a half-million people over the four-day holiday weekend.

But three malls owned by Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT) - Moorestown, Plymouth Meeting, and Gallery II - will be following the lead of the Mall of America, the country's largest, and close on Thanksgiving to give workers the day off to spend with their families.

On average, shopping on Black Friday and Cyber Monday is expected to be consistent with last year.

But "online sales will be bigger this year than last," said Charles O'Shea, senior retail analyst at Moody's.

"While this holiday season is not as long as last year's, which was driven by the early September 2015 Star Wars promotions, early November promotions this season will have a meaningful impact on Thanksgiving weekend," O'Shea said. "It will be interesting to see how much the early promotional activity will 'pull' sales from traditional Thanksgiving/Black Friday weekend to earlier this month."

Said Center City-based Steven H. Gartner, managing director for retail services at commercial real estate firm CBRE Inc.: "While online shopping continues to grow, Black Friday is about hitting the stores, whether for sport or for actual shopping. It's a day that most people are off work and have time.

"It's a day to strategize their gift purchases, which may mean scouting in stores . . . from their phone in one store and actually buying from another," Gartner said. "Look for more shoppers walking around with phone in hand on Black Friday, competitively browsing."

PREIT CEO Joe Coradino said his team has been planning for the holiday season since June.

All malls within the PREIT portfolio aim to enhance the shopping experience by offering shoppers a variety of VIP amenities, he said: free coat and package check; complimentary personal-shopping insights at Cherry Hill Mall; and reserved parking and gift wrapping at Willow Grove Park.

"We spent a lot of time considering what will make the shopping experience more enjoyable and convenient," Coradino said. "Our customers are time-starved, and we want to make sure the wonder and excitement of the season is maintained and it doesn't become a burden.

"Consumer behavior certainly shifts, and we're seeing how that influences certain retailers and markets, but Black Friday will always retain its significance within the retail industry," he said.

Not to be outdone, Simon Property Group-owned King of Prussia became one of the first malls in the country to introduce digital directories that allow customers to find the locations of stores and services via an interactive map that displays the fastest route. For added convenience, directions can be sent to shoppers' phones via text message.

At many malls, including Philadelphia Premium Outlets and King of Prussia, free shuttles are available for transporting customers to and from their cars.

"This year will be the beginning of a renaissance for Black Friday," said John Talbott, director of the Center for Education and Research in Retailing at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University.

"Sure, retailers have migrated action to online and some are choosing to close, but many others are recognizing that the essence of Black Friday is the competitive thrill of finding that perfect gift in-store."

Talbott said Black Friday has taken on a more zealous nature.

"Across the nation, families - mostly, moms, daughters, in-laws - are plotting their path through the aisle of various stores to ensure they get the deals they want," Talbott said.

"We no longer need stores to transact and exchange money. They exist only to entertain, provide information, or offer something valuable that can't be found elsewhere," he said. "I think retailers are realizing that for many consumers, the thrill of competitive shopping is something they enjoy as a family, and they will do their best to ensure the experience only gets better.

"Black Friday is not going anywhere."

Still, there has been a backlash this year to the earlier and earlier shopping starts on Thanksgiving. At least 50 national retailers, including Nordstrom, REI, and Lowe's, decided to close on the holiday this year.

For the second year in a row, outdoor-gear retailer REI will close for both Thanksgiving and Black Friday, giving its employees a holiday day off and a paid day off.

Cyndi Noonan, 47, of Conshohocken, is planning an outdoor excursion of her own on Black Friday with husband David, 43, who works part-time for REI.

"We will be going hiking Friday instead of fighting the crowds" shopping, said Noonan, a schoolteacher. "If I can get it online, I'll get it online. I just try to avoid shopping on Black Friday."

REI asked its employees and customers to tweet and let them know what they did with their time off.

sparmley@phillynews.com

215-854-4184 @SuzParmley

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