East Valley stores will be open earlier than ever for Black Friday this year as retailers seek every advantage to attract shoppers in what is expected by many to be another lackluster holiday shopping season.
Although October sales figures, driven by a surge in auto sales, exceeded economists' expectations, the squeeze of tight credit and the highest unemployment rate in 23 years cause most economists to doubt that spending this year will exceed last year's by much.
For example, Michael Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers, expects overall holiday sales to rise about 1 percent from last year's subpar performance. The NDP Group, a provider of consumer and retail information, expects overall unit sales to increase but revenue to be flat or slightly down because of lower prices.
A Gallup poll found that Americans expect to spend about the same as last year on holiday gifts.
Elliott Pollack, a Scottsdale-based economist who closely follows local retailing, thinks sales will rise this year, but only because last year was so weak.
"It should be better than last year when we were in the heart of the meltdown. So the comparisons should be easy," he said. "But relative to a normal year, it should be pretty mediocre."
He added that retailers are opening earlier because they're "doing whatever they can to attract customers."
Six of the Valley's Westcor malls will open at midnight for the first time this year, including Fiesta Mall and Superstition Springs Center in Mesa, Chandler Fashion Center, and Arizona Mills mall in Tempe.
The early openings are the result of requests from retailers, said Melissa Buxton, marketing manager for Fiesta Mall and Superstition Springs Center.
"It's been tried at several centers around the country, and they have really had successful openings, so we're giving it a try in Mesa," she said.
Many of the stores inside the malls also will open at midnight, although the department stores have set their own hours, she said.
Early shoppers at the two Mesa malls and at Chandler Fashion Center will receive $50 Westcor gift cards while they last if they spend $100, and they can win $1,000 gift cards in drawings at 3 a.m. and 5 a.m.
For really hard-core shoppers, Walmart stores will stay open all day Thanksgiving and then all night, even though many of the sales items won't be up for grabs until 5 a.m. Friday. The extended hours come one year after an employee at a Long Island Walmart was trampled to death when the doors opened in the pre-dawn hours of Black Friday.
Erick Martinez, manager of the Kohl's store at 1632 S. Signal Butte Road in east Mesa, said his store was extending a promotion to the day before Thanksgiving this year to attract shoppers early. Beginning Wednesday and continuing through Sunday, shoppers can earn $10 in Kohl's Cash for every $50 they spend at the store. The Kohl's Cash can be redeemed at the store from Monday through Dec. 7.
Also, early bird deals will be available from the 4 a.m. opening to 1 p.m. Friday, he said.
Martinez said he is expecting a good year for his store, and he expects a long line when the store opens early Friday morning. Procedures will be in place to make sure everyone stays safe, he said.
"We will have only one line, and we will open only one set of doors," he said. "Once the line is through it, then we will open the other doors."
Bass Pro Shop will sponsor its third annual Great Turkey Campout Thursday night in its front parking lot at 1133 N. Dobson Road, Mesa. From 5 to 8 Thanksgiving evening, family and friends can gather around a fire pit, enjoy free hot chocolate and s'mores and register to win prizes. Overnight campers will be treated to Christmas music and free refreshments beginning at 5:30 a.m., and doors will open at 6 a.m.
Disney Stores will open at midnight at Fiesta Mall, Arizona Mills and SanTan Village in Gilbert. The company said it is cutting many items to $5, $10 and $15 and is offering another 20 percent off already discounted items from opening to 10 a.m.
Earlier this week, shoppers at Superstition Springs Center voiced varying opinions about the Black Friday shopping ritual.
Mesa resident Tiffany Anderson said she loves to shop on the day after Thanksgiving because "you get good deals, and it's fun to kick off the holiday season." She added she gets the majority of her Christmas shopping done on that day.
Sharon Davis, a resident of Gold Canyon, is also an avid Black Friday shopper, saying she and her family have gone out early every year for the past 10 years. She said she likes the crowds and the jostling.
"It's fun," she said. "You get the deals, and you have to fight to get them."
Davis said her family plans their strategy in advance with everyone getting their own assignment. "We check the ads, circle what we want and then we split up," she said.
Another Mesa resident, Teresa Gunnell, said she has never tried Black Friday shopping. But she might do it this year if she spots any deals that are worth going out for.
"Less (expensive) is always better," she said.
She said she also does some of her holiday shopping online because she can find good prices.
"Some stores offer free shipping, and that saves a lot, too," she said. "And you don't have to waste gas."
Other shoppers said they will skip the Black Friday scene, saying it can be dangerous with so many people rushing to grab the best deals. Too often, the sales prices are available on only a few items, and once they're sold, the discounts disappear, the shoppers said.