Black Friday begins early in Whatcom County

If there is a national event desperately in need of a new name, it’s Black Friday.

In the ongoing effort to compete with online websites and maintain the consumers’ attention, national retailers continue to stretch the idea of Black Friday into other days on the calendar. Last week Walmart kicked off its “Black Friday Prices Before Black Friday” sale, while Amazon.com launched its Black Friday sales on Friday, Nov. 21, a week before the actual day-after-Thanksgiving event.

In Bellingham most national stores are kicking off Black Friday sales on Thursday, while Jo-Ann Fabrics is advertising that it will kick off its doorbuster sales on Wednesday, Nov. 26, close the store for Thanksgiving, then reopen with more doorbuster sales on Friday.

“The traditional Black Friday is no longer traditional,” said Dev Shapiro, a spokesman for gottadeal.com, a website that collects store sales information, including leaked Black Friday ads, and has message boards for people to discuss shopping trends.

He expects the month of November to become the “retail playground” for stores in the coming years, with different types of sales happening throughout the month. Halloween will become the new hard wall that retailers will be reluctant to cross, he said.

For now, though, customers are expected to line up outside stores on Thursday and Friday to take advantage of sales. Getting in line is a fun tradition for many, so some national stores are looking for ways to entertain customers while they wait for the store opening. At JC Penney, this year’s theme is Jingle More Bells, so expect some bell-ringing, candy canes, shopping bags, snow globes and other giveaways, said Janis Haines, the store leader in Bellingham.

“We just want to have some fun with customers this year,” Haines said. “This is our Super Bowl.”

The 5 p.m. Thursday opening is the earliest ever for JC Penney, which opened at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving last year. Haines said the strong response from customers about opening on Thursday last year convinced the company to do it again this year. Having employees working on Thanksgiving is difficult, but Haines said the company plans on a variety of secret things for the workers.

“It (the Thursday opening) is something customers wanted, so as a company we are answering that,” she said.

While many will be out shopping on Thanksgiving, others will stay at home, enjoying the feast. Local retail stores also will be competing with football: The Seattle Seahawks game at San Francisco is scheduled to start at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, a time when several stores are getting ready to open.

The weather shouldn’t be a deterrent. The National Weather Service predicts typical late fall days: mostly cloudy, some rain, temperatures in the 40s.

Cross-border traffic is a major factor in Black Friday and holiday shopping in Whatcom County. While the Canadian dollar has weakened to around 88 cents compared to the U.S. dollar, the lower gas prices and other factors still make the trip worthwhile for many, said Hart Hodges, director at Western Washington University’s Center for Economic and Business Research. Overall, he doesn’t expect a big boost in sales, but no big drop, either.

A Deloitte survey also indicates continued Canadian interest in cross-border shopping this holiday season. According to its 2014 Holiday Retail Outlook, 44.8 percent of Vancouver residents surveyed said they are likely to cross the border into the U.S. to do some holiday shopping, down slightly from last year’s 45.1 percent.

In the survey, more Vancouver residents are viewing cross-border shopping as a fun experience. Lower prices remain the main reason for crossing the border, but less so than last year.

Last season retail sales were a bit sluggish in Whatcom County, according to the Washington State Department of Revenue. In the final quarter of 2013, overall sales increased 1.8 percent year over year to $907.9 million, but sales at big-box stores in Whatcom County were down 4.5 percent for the same period.

The one retail category posting a big increase locally last year was mail order/online sales, which rose 18.7 percent year over year to $30.5 million. The online sales number is small compared to the big-box store category, which tallied $126.4 million during that fourth quarter, but online is becoming a preferred way to shop for some consumers.

Several trends are developing this year heading into Black Friday sales, according to Shapiro:

•  Less laptops, more tablets. Shapiro said that while laptop computers still will be popular at work, they are becoming less popular at home. People at home are more able to get what want through a tablet and enjoy the convenience of carrying it around the house.

•  Less 3D, more HD. When it comes to televisions, it’s looking like 3D was probably a fad, Shapiro said. The improved high-definition and curved screens are expected to be popular this year.

•  Wearable electronics are expected to be popular. Shapiro said the idea of storing health information and tracking exercise on a device that is on a wrist is technology consumers want.

•  Kitchen devices are hot. More high-tech features are being added, and that will be popular with consumers.

•  Movies, particularly on Blu-ray, will be deeply discounted.

•  Shopping at small, independent retailers is also growing in popularity, he said. Small Business Saturday on Nov. 29 is expected to be popular for consumers who want to avoid the big store crowds.

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