For shoppers, the big event goes well beyond Black Friday

Experts say more people started holiday shopping weeks ago, with many taking advantage of early-bird discounts.

SHARE For shoppers, the big event goes well beyond Black Friday
Shoppers on North Michigan Avenue in 2021.

Shoppers like these from last year will be back on North Michigan Avenue and in other retail areas on Black Friday, as stores expect a better season than 2021 and consumers say they intend to spend more. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Drum roll, please — Black Friday, the Day, the Season, the Experience, is here, a little different from the past but, with the pandemic less worrisome, merchants and shoppers may find it’s beginning to look a lot like … normal.

Not even a tangle of cares over inflation, rising interest rates and possible layoffs in a recession can stop most people’s yen to spend. Analysts say consumers are eager to hit the stores and websites, even if the old habit of shopping on Thanksgiving or in the wee hours of Black Friday isn’t so popular anymore.

There’s evidence that a lot of gift buying is already finished. Consulting firm Accenture said it has noticed the rise of “organized consumers” who started their shopping lists weeks early. They wanted to jump on early sales and spread out their spending.

“It started as soon as the back-to-school sales were winding up,” said Lori Zumwinkle, North American retail lead at Accenture. The firm’s survey of more than 1,500 people in the U.S. found 45% reporting they started to shop in August.

Overall, Accenture learned that people expect to increase their holiday spending, with the average Chicago-area resident estimating they’ll lay out $719, vs. a projection of $580 in last year’s survey. Both figures are somewhat below the national averages.

“People want to get back into the stores,” Zumwinkle said. She added that when they get there, they will be generally pleased by what’s in stock. Retailers report inventory levels are good, in contrast to last year, when supply chains were tight.

“The shoppers started early, but so did the retailers with their promotions,” a sign of confidence in their inventories, said Rob Karr, president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association.

Walmart and Best Buy were among many chains that pushed Black Friday deals as early as October. Amazon rolled out a Prime Day promotion that same month. In November, the sales pitches have been everywhere in ads and inboxes.

Shoppers will want to watch for deeper discounts in December in case store owners find they ordered too much of some goods. But procrastinators could be tripped up. A threatened nationwide rail strike could hit in early December, disrupting last-minute shipments. Congress could avert a strike by imposing contract terms.

Karr’s group is cautious in its outlook, predicting holiday sales will rise about 5% from last year, notable but beneath the current rate of inflation.

The National Retail Federation, meanwhile, sees cash registers collecting from 6% to 8% more than they did during 2021. The group defines holiday sales as occurring in November and December and subtracts such items as gasoline and grocery purchases. It guesses nationwide spending for the holidays will be close to $960 billion.

The group also estimates that 166 million people will shop from Thanksgiving through Monday, traditionally called Cyber Monday because of the rush to online bargains. It’s the federation’s highest estimate since it began tracking the data in 2017.

Behind that outlook is a bullish view about consumer confidence and low unemployment. Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the federation, said “many households will supplement spending with savings and credit to provide a cushion and result in a positive holiday experience.”

Analysts also note that shoppers voice a desire to patronize independent retailers and neighborhood boutiques. It’s a concern that gained urgency for many people when the pandemic threatened small businesses.

Locally, many neighborhood business associations are promoting alternatives to the malls and big-box stores. On Dec. 3, Beverly and Morgan Park businesses on Western Avenue will be showcased in a shopping and dining promotion. Pilsen businesses will unveil decorated storefronts this Saturday, known as Small Business Saturday, for a “Christmas window walk.” Santa Claus is heavily booked throughout the area.

Trying a different approach, the Edison Park Chamber of Commerce encourages people to wear ugly Christmas sweaters for a pub crawl Dec. 9.

Santa would appreciate it if somebody saves him a seat.

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