Fewer plan to shop on Black Friday 2011, survey finds. What do they know?

Forty-four percent of Americans plan to shop on Black Friday 2011, a new survey shows. That compares with 47 percent in 2010 and 52 percent in 2009. Today's shoppers have more bargain-hunting tools.

Peter Pereira/The Standard Times of New Bedford/AP/File
Shoppers stream into a Best Buy to take advantage of the store's early opening on Black Friday 2010, in Dartmouth, Mass. Forty-four percent of Americans plan to shop on Black Friday 2011, a new survey shows, compared with 47 percent last year.

Sigh. Black Friday just isn't what it used to be.

That's partly because the economy is so lackluster, according to a new holiday shopping survey released by Accenture, a global management consulting company. But it's also because consumers are better equipped – with smart phones and other devices – to help them land the best bargains, whether they occur on Nov. 25, this year's Black Friday, or another day between now and Christmas. 

"This holiday season will see the balance of power continue to tip in favor of the consumer,” says Janet Hoffman, managing director of Accenture’s Retail practice. 

Black Friday, traditionally the biggest shopping day of the year, has become something of a tea-leaf-reading exercise for those seeking to gauge the health and direction of US consumerism. The expectations this year?

Nearly three-quarters of respondents in the Accenture survey expect their spending to be “careful” or “controlled.” Eighty-eight percent intend to spend the same or less than last year.

Moreover, the importance of Black Friday is sliding, its research shows. Forty-four percent say they are likely to shop that day, compared with 47 percent in 2010 and 52 percent in 2009.

Compared with last year, a larger proportion of shoppers say they'll leave their holiday shopping until after Black Friday (52 percent versus 41 percent in 2010), and one-third will leave the bulk of their purchases until December.

One-quarter of shoppers plan to have a “thrifty” holiday season, and almost 1 in 5 (18 percent) claim they will be "focused on necessities," with only 6 percent acknowledging plans for “extravagant” or “unrestrained” holiday spending. Ninety-three percent say discounts are important this year.

While discount stores remain the top holiday shopping destination, their dominant position is beginning to fade, the Accenture survey found. Seventy-three percent of respondents say they will shop at a discount retailer this year, compared with 81 percent last year and 85 percent in 2009.

One significant development that complicates matters for retailers, but that enhances the position of consumers, is the rising use of mobile and smart phones and tablet computers to compare prices online while in stores. Buyers can do a quick search to see if the same item is selling for less elsewhere. Forty-three percent of holiday shoppers who use such devices believe they will snag a better price as a result, and one-third say they will use their devices to receive alerts concerning when a product is in stock.

Another development is that the percentage of shoppers expecting to buy more than half of their holiday gifts online has jumped 18 percent (from 41 to 59 percent) over last year.

“Retailers must not ignore the challenge presented by the mobile shopper checking prices using their device in-store,” says Ms. Hoffman.

The slow economic recovery has been socking it to retailers this year.

“Retailers may not get as much coal in their stocking this holiday season, but they will still need a miracle to get the cash registers ringing,” says Jane Bailey of TPN, a retail marketing agency, in a statement. While their forecasters predict a 2 to 3 percent increase over last year’s retail sales, many retailers placed orders for holiday merchandise last spring, when it looked as if the economy was on the upswing, says Ms. Bailey.

With the subsequent debt-limit clash over the summer and this week's failure of the congressional deficit-cutting “super committee” to devise a plan, “retailers aren’t certain if consumers are feeling confident enough to shop,” she says. “If overstocked with items, retailers will have to slash prices to move merchandise, causing lower sales.” [Editor's note: The original attribution of the source in the preceding two paragraphs was incorrect and has been changed.]

Also on the side of consumers are new Internet destinations and iPad/iPod apps. One, Decide.com, calculates the best time to buy consumer electronics, using broad surveys of what brick-and-mortar stores and e-tailers are offering. In-store consumers can just scan the product’s barcode – or do a search by model number – for an instant analysis of whether to buy now or wait.

“A one-second search can save you hundreds of dollars and the pain that comes with buying the wrong product at the wrong time,” says Mike Fridgen, CEO of Decide.com.

His company’s advice? “Sleep in on Black Friday. While some products are offered at a deep discount, most [consumer electronics] products hit their lowest prices in early December, well after the hype of Black Friday or Cyber Monday,” he says.

What all this research shows about 2011 America is that Black Friday is not nearly as green as it once was, explains Richard Laermer, CEO of RLMpr and author of “Trend Spotting 2011.”

"Christmas consumers are mostly waiting 'til desperate retailers pull out all the stops and literally beg them to shop – at the lowest possible rate. The media hype spending as big-big during holidays – what else are they going to do, act like Grinches? My research demonstrates that even those fortunate enough to have expendable income – not a very high number of citizens – are unsure about their financial situation during this tumultuous coming year. Political infighting, riots on streets, mass layoffs, and corporate closings are not making it a happy holiday thus far, so spending will undoubtedly decrease. We will buy presents, for sure, but for those who deserve it the most or who will guilt us if we don't."

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