Canadian retailers have good reason to be nervous today as the Black Friday phenomenon in the United States spreads further and runs longer.
Retailers north of the border are offering more of their own Black Friday deals, and more are getting in on the action. But, armed with a strong dollar and an increased appetite for deals in uncertain times, Canadian shoppers are still flocking south or to their computers.
The day after U.S. Thanksgiving is the traditional kickoff to the holiday shopping season in the United States, and a barometer of how retailers may fare. But Black Friday is something of a misnomer now, as it begins at some stores on the holiday itself, or often earlier, and runs through what has become known as Cyber Monday. This year, U.S. holiday sales are expected to rise 2.8 per cent from 2010, according to the National Retail Federation forecast. While a gain is welcome, it is below the 5.2-per-cent increase last year.
This is also a long weekend that sees Canadians streaming across the border, putting more pressure on Canadian stores to match U.S. deals and, in the process, pinching profits.
According to a new poll by Angus Reid for UPS Canada, Canadian retailers can expect to lose one of every five shoppers to U.S. Black Friday-Cyber Monday discounts. Thirty per cent will be shopping for the holidays.
Since the dollar moved to around parity, Canadian merchants began touting their own Black Friday deals to stem the rising exodus. Sears Canada Inc. , for example, started its Black Friday sales on Thursday and will extend the deals through the weekend this time around.
"If we can provide what [shoppers]are looking for on Thursday, then we may prevent a U.S. shopping trip on Friday, or at least get some of those sales at Sears Canada," spokesman Vincent Power said.
Discount giant Wal-Mart Canada Corp. also extended its Black Friday sales for the entire weekend , breaking new ground by introducing online deals for Black Friday and Cyber Monday, considered the peak day of online holiday shopping in the U.S., Wal-Mart's key focus is in electronics, toys, apparel and small appliances, a spokeswoman said.
Even Lululemon Athletica Inc. , the Vancouver-based yoga wear chain that rarely holds sales, was promoting deals Thursday, including $98 yoga pants for $79. "At some point, all retailers will have to do this," said David Ian Gray of retail consultancy DIG360 in Vancouver. "Retailers will teach shoppers to expect another deep discount at this time of the year."
Mr. Gray expressed doubts about how profitable the sales will be for retailers. "The overall [sales]volume doesn't go up," he said. "Their margin goes down."
The race for deals comes as the U.S. economy is slowing, with signs that personal spending came to a virtual standstill in October. The climate of uncertainty raises the stakes for all retailers in the crucial holiday period, with a lot riding on the Black Friday weekend to get shoppers into the spending mood.
Patty Latham is among the millions of Americans who take their bargain shopping seriously, camping out in front of major retailers on Thanksgiving night in order to snag the best bargains.
"I camp out every year; I have a tent," said Ms. Latham, a Nashville real estate agent who on Thursday was outside an electronics store, waiting for its 11 p.m. opening to nab a deal on iPads. "They're saying the economy is better this year. Last year they didn't have good deals – this year they've pulled all the stops out."
In the U.S., the retail federation expects 152 million people to hit stores this Black Friday weekend, up 10.1 per cent from last year. But the bargain-hunting traffic can cool off quickly. Last year, after a strong Black Friday weekend, retailers' business sank until closer to Christmas.
This year, many retailers have stocked their stores at conservative levels, not wanting to be stuck with excess inventory that they have to clear out at steep discounts. As a result, toy retailers may run out of hit holiday gift products early, analysts have warned.
In Nashville, Ms. Latham isn't taking any chances. She set up her tent at an electronics store and packed lots of Diet Coke. Her goal: getting into Electronics Express before all of the marked down items vanish off the shelves.