With Gas Prices Low, Stores Hope For Pleasant Surprise

While the news that consumers have cut their spending to the lowest levels in seven years will surely dishearten many retail executives, chains are pulling out all the stops to make sure this Black Friday has plenty to offer.

The National Retail Federation, the industry's largest trade association, estimates that up to 128 million people will shop today, Saturday or Sunday. (Some 49 million people say they will definitely be shopping this weekend, while 79 million say they intend to see what the deals are before braving the mall.) That represents a slight decline from the 135 million people who said they would or may shop at this time last year.

With gas prices lower than they have been in years, stores are hoping that pent-up demand will spark a pleasant holiday surprise. And consumers will definitely be bargain-hunting, leading NRF to speculate that this may be the most promotional Black Friday in history.

Discounters are expected to be among the biggest winners. A survey from the International Council of Shopping Centers shows that of the 45% of Americans who plan to shop this weekend, 81% of them are planning to hit a discount store. Some 78% say they are heading for a department store, and 63% have electronics stores on their list. This survey finds that shoppers are decidedly more bargain-conscious, with 45% saying they are looking for holiday bargains, versus 36% last year. But surprisingly, consumers also seem to be feeling a little bit deprived--and this year, 81% said they will pick up something for themselves, versus 69% last year.



Forecasters worry that these price-driven hordes may heap further bruising on retailers. A new survey from Oliver Wyman, a management-consulting firm, reports that six out of 10 shoppers plan to cut their spending in communications and media entertainment, for example--typically a key gift category.

Sales of devices such as desktop and notebook computers, music players, and digital cameras are the most threatened, with over 50% of respondents reporting that they plan to spend less on devices over the next year, which equates to about a 10% drop in sales. (Bright spots are likely to include next-generation devices, including a sales increase for Blu-ray players, smartphones and HDTVs.)

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