Will Black Friday be Blue?

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Shoppers at the Sawgrass Mills Shopping Center in Florida

Retailers call this Black Friday, and it's got nothing to do with the stock market. The day after Thanksgiving is traditionally the biggest shopping day of the year — and the start of a holiday gift-buying season that merchants count on to turn the red in their books to the color of profit.

This year, it's looking a little blue. Surveys find that households are planning to spend some $28 less than 2001's $490 average, with only 56 percent planning on matching last year's total and more planning on spending less than spending more. Retail Forward Inc. forecasts a drop of 1.5 percent in the season's sales of apparel, furniture, consumer electronics and other general merchandise over last season's — which doesn't sound too bad until you consider that such sales haven't fallen on a year-to-year basis in 34 years. In what passes for optimism this year, the National Retail Federation predicts holiday sales will rise 2.5 to 3 percent, which sounds pretty good until you consider that last year's dismal sales season was a 3.9 percent hike over the previous year's, and anything under 3 percent for 2001 would be the worst showing since 1990.

The reason for all the gloom and doom is obvious: Unemployment numbers are rising, planes are falling and the current pop psychology says folks will be thinking more about spending time with friends and family than throwing a lot of money at them. But there's always the chance that the American consumer may be feeling a little more mall-worthy this holiday than everyone thinks.

The silver wrapping paper

First, the economy is showing signs of stabilizing. The University of Michigan's index of consumer sentiment advanced to 83.9 from 82.7 in October, and the number of Americans filing for first-time jobless claims fell by 15,000 to 427,000 last week, surprising economists with a fourth straight weekly decline. And retail sales did bounce back big time in October, though they're still a long way from normal levels.

To the extent that retailers saw an economic slowdown coming when they placed their Christmas-season orders back in July — and spent October frantically slashing prices and ponying up incentives trying to lure Sept.11-shocked shoppers back into stores (we're looking at you, car dealers), this season could actually see rather slim pickings on the shelves if shoppers — whether out of patriotism, a determination to act normal, or an urge to get the kids a few extra toys with all this tragedy around — turn out in any force at all.

To the extent that nobody could have seen this economic slowdown coming, and shoppers are as reticent as everyone thinks, there's still going to be a lot more inventory to be slashed. That's bad news for retailers, bad news for the economy — it shouldn't delay the recovery much, but it'll make the interim a lot more painful — and still more bad news for manufacturers and anyone else whose job depends on the Great American commercialism normally associated with the season. But it's good news to anybody who can get to the mall before all the decent stuff is gone.

The 'X' factor

When the early guesstimates on this Black Friday's sales come in next week — and you will see anxious economists in malls doing exit polling — they may not mean that much even if they're encouraging. Last year's day-after-Turkey-Day numbers were plump but the rest of the season was lean until after the January markdowns, and the recent trend has been that shopping gets done earlier and earlier every year. This Black Friday could be pure gold and still be the last decent day of the year.

But then there's Microsoft's X-Box, Nintendo's Game Cube, Apple's iPod, and (according to the Wall Street Journal, anyway) disco-era throwback Shrinky Dinks, which sentimental boomers are apparently trying to pass on to their kids. And there's always this year's batch of "must-own" DVDs of didn't-need-to-see movies, the kind of stocking stuffer that tends to pile up in shoppers' hands (and on their credit-card bills). Maybe all retailers will need this Christmas is a few hot "magnet" items (sufficiently stocked) to get shoppers into the stores, and the American urge to lavish gifts upon one's family, friends and of course oneself will do the rest. Maybe they'll need a miracle.

Or maybe there'll be just a really, really big sale in January.