Categorized | Your Community, Business

Black Friday Results Mixed for Local Retailers

BY MATT DURNING //

The heavy fog that swept over the Bay Area on Monday seemed to mirror the ambivalence some local retailers are feeling in the wake of the highly anticipated Black Friday weekend.

Nationally, Black Friday sales were up 3 percent over last year, to about $10.6 billion nationwide, according to figures released Saturday by retail industry research firm ShopperTrak RCT. For retailers, who often consider the weekend after Thanksgiving a barometer of overall holiday sales, such reports seemed to offer hope, or at least a break from months of dire economic news.

But in El Cerrito, local retailers described a mixed bag of success and struggle this weekend that did not necessarily reflect national trends.

In particular, the early morning frenzy of doorbuster sales that defined Black Friday shopping across the nation was largely absent in El Cerrito.

GameStop, a national video game chain store, opened its El Cerrito Plaza location two hours early, at 7:00 a.m., with four employees, twice the regular staff size, on duty. When the doors opened, however, only five customers were waiting to come in.

Assistant Manager Tristan Cebulski, 24, who has worked at the store for almost six years, called it “one of the smallest Black Fridays I’ve seen.” He said the day’s sales, which he described as “definitely more tame than recent years but not awful,” did not justify the early hours and additional staff.

Cebulski said he expected holiday figures to be down from previous years, but also acknowledged that business has remained steady, probably because home entertainment remains a feasible alternative to other forms of discretionary spending.

“When the economy is bad, people stay at home more, so movies and video games are still popular,” he said.

Two other El Cerrito Plaza retailers, Ross Dress for Less and JoAnn Fabrics, also reported slower than expected morning foot traffic but, unlike GameStop, found that business improved dramatically in the afternoon.

Alicia Rodriguez, assistant manager at Ross clothing store, said that while the early hours were worrisome, by 12:30 p.m. more than 100 customers were in the store shopping with lines extending “from the check out counters all the way to the Home Furnishings section in the back.” Traffic remained heavy until roughly 7:00 p.m.

Yet despite the strong afternoon and evening, Rodriguez said Black Friday sales at the El Cerrito Ross store were down about 5 percent compared with the same day last year. Rodriguez, who has been with the company for three years, said the store’s 2008 year-to-date earnings are also down a full 5-10 percent from 2007 numbers.

Across the parking lot at JoAnn Fabrics, store manager Rayleen Henry was feeling pleased about the weekend’s sales. She said Black Friday figures here, at the store she opened six months ago, were about the same as last year’s Black Friday earnings at the chain’s Fremont, Calif., location. More importantly, she said, the El Cerrito store’s average ticket – the amount spent per customer per visit – was up 25-30 percent over a typical business day.

Having worked for JoAnn Fabrics for nearly 30 years, Henry believes the company’s focus on discount merchandise has played a major role in the store’s ability to weather the recent economic downturn.

“People are always looking for discounts,” she said. “But especially now, they’re looking to stretch bargains as far as they can.”

Analysts seem to agree. According to the National Retail Federation’s 2008 Black Friday Weekend survey, more than half (54.7 percent) of this weekend’s shoppers visited discount stores.

One El Cerrito business that has benefited from the depressed market climate is Little Raspberries, an independent consignment boutique located at 10400 San Pablo Avenue. The store sells a combination of new and used baby products, acting as both a buyer and seller.

“Like a lot of local businesses we were concerned about what holiday shopping would look like this year,” said Koji Matsumoto, who opened the store with his wife, Marta Mendoza, two years ago. “We have been shocked and extremely thankful to see our sales actually increase over the past three months after an extremely tough year up to this point.”

The shop’s newfound success has been driven almost completely by their resale business. Customers have been trading in a lot of high-end used products like cribs and strollers in order to buy new toys for the holidays. The store offers 50 percent of a product’s assessed resale value in store credit for trade-ins. This in turn allows the shop to offer good quality big-ticket items to families who wouldn’t normally be able to afford them.

“These days everyone is suffering and things are really tough everywhere,” Matsumoto said. “People are more appreciative of resale stores like ours.”

Despite the strong Black Friday figures reported by groups like ShopperTrak and National Retail Federation, experts warn that any such gains are likely fleeting. Most analysts expect more inclement retail markets in the weeks ahead. Some are even predicting the worst holiday shopping season in recent memory.

Local retailers like Little Raspberries and Ross, however, remain cautiously optimistic.

“I don’t see the customers being worried,” said Rodriguez of her Ross store patrons.

“I know lots of people wait until the last minute to do their holiday shopping, so hopefully it gets better.”

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