Black Friday is upon retailers once more, and while a return to profitability is unlikely for many after a tough 2009, the one-day sales bonanza presents a last-ditch opportunity ahead of the holiday season. Joe Ayling reports.

The US National Retail Federation (NRF) predicts that 134m Americans will take to stores on the day after Thanksgiving. This compares to 128m on Black Friday last year.

While US retailers have already been forced into early promotions and discounts to counter sinking consumer confidence, they'll need their second wind this coming weekend.

"Regardless of what we've already seen these last few weeks in terms of promotions, retailers still have a few tricks up their sleeves to excite Black Friday shoppers," says Tracy Mullin, NRF president and CEO.

Cyber Monday
Once the official holiday season is underway, online retailers will begin a separate battle to lure Internet shoppers, on what is now called Cyber Monday.

The rising popularity of e-commerce means that Black Friday is fast becoming a weekend-long event for multi-channel retailers in the US, especially those jostling for position on social network sites.

"Retailers have a very acute sense of the importance of Cyber Monday in kick-starting holiday sales and have been planning their promotions for months," said Scott Silverman, executive director of Shop.org.

"It seems like companies up the ante every year for Cyber Monday, and many holiday shoppers are eagerly anticipating the bargains that await them this year."

Consumer spending slump
However, despite widespread sales bonanzas and promotional activities, a driving factor for many US families this holiday season will be the struggling state of the economy.

According to NRF's 2009 Holiday Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey, conducted by BIGresearch, US consumers plan to spend an average of $682.74 on holiday-related shopping, a 3.2% drop from last year's $705.01.

"While last holiday season was filled with chaotic confusion, adjusting to uncertainty has now become routine for many Americans," says NRF's Mullin.

"This holiday season will be a bit of a dance between retailers and shoppers, with each group feeling the other out to understand how things have changed and how they must adapt."

The NRF believes the majority of holiday shoppers - 70.1% - will purchase from discounters this year, though more than half - 55.8% - will also shop at department stores.

Meanwhile, 33.8% of US shoppers are expected to head for clothing stores.

Balancing act
Many US apparel retailers have been forced to cut back inventories amid declining sales, a balancing act that will be put to the test as demand returns.

None will complain if there's a demand for extra orders though, and the battle for Black Friday custom has begun already.

For instance, JCPenney says it will offer 15% more Black Friday offers than it did last year, and is opening its doors at 4am. Others, including Kmart, will be open on Thanksgiving itself.

Meanwhile, Sears is up-selling its Canyon River Blues Jeans on sale for US$9.99, less than half of the regular $17.99-$29.99 price point.

The offers, commonly including free shipping during the holiday period, will clearly be tempting US shoppers to loosen purse strings.

There is no abundance of cash or credit within these purses though and discounters look set to benefit most from Black Friday 2009.

For the retailers involved, let battle commence.