By  on December 5, 2008

Mass market retailers were pleasantly surprised by heavier-than-expected traffic on Black Friday. But in the ensuing week, they’ve come to the conclusion that the promising start was more of a blip than the beginning of a boom. However, buyers point out that mass stores, especially drugstores, always reap the benefits of a last-minute shopping frenzy.

Discount stores, of course, were more of a draw on Black Friday than drugstores. Many major chains used lures of discounts on electronic gadgets and toys. Once inside, merchants did hope for impulse pickup of gift sets or cosmetics — products that could help offset slashed margins on doorbusters.

At a Target in South Plainfield, N.J., on Black Friday, the beauty department was not as trafficked as the rest of the store. However, a few shoppers did stop and tinker with a tester unit for fragrances featuring a tether to keep the testers from “disappearing.” Target also featured several trial-size fragrance deals and kits aimed at kids.

Across the street at Kohl’s, cashiers looked exhausted from a 4 a.m. opening, but the beauty department looked untouched from the crowds. Kohl’s also had deals on fragrances, including under-$20 price points on sets of Paris Hilton, White Diamonds and a Britney Spears Great Hits collection.

There were shoppers, however, looking to fill in their stress wrinkles with Kohl’s exclusive Tri-Aktiline Instant Deep Wrinkle Filler. Several customers did stop by the display to read up on the product.

Store checks at both Sears and Kmart found the two retailers are boosting beauty departments. Kmart — a chain getting new attention for the old concept of layaway — touted fragrances such as Paris Hilton and Michael Jordan while also offering double coupons. Sears appears to be enlarging its footprint to beauty, and there were a few customers looking at body care gift sets.

At Marshalls, the impact of the slowdown in fragrance sales in other channels is evident by six table displays of premium scents, such as Sarah Jessica Parker’s Covet. Situated at the front door, the tables were being looked at by shoppers, with few buying anything. One customer said she’d make a mental note of the existence of all the fragrances and come back closer to the holiday. Still, by the looks of inventory at many stores — and of older scents such as Giorgio — there could be a great deal of fragrances to clear out after Dec. 25.

One chain that always outpaces the industry in fragrances is Walgreens. This year the company took advantage of that strength and offered deals for early scent purchases with discounts on items purchased before Dec. 6.

Some mass retailers have decided to downplay fragrances, at least at the beginning of the holiday push, in favor of appliances and other gift items. Harmon, for example, had a tree featuring Chi hair straighteners. CVS Pharmacy had an endcap with massaging slippers and a neck-support pillow. One top 10 mass merchant said the chain isn’t hauling out its full fragrance gift set selection until next week. Instead, the retailer is featuring gift items such as memory-foam pillows, massaging cushions with heat and even Chia pets. Drugstores have become a destination for unusual gift items, merchants said.

Several buyers did notice shoppers interested in natural and organic lines. In fact, CVS is stocking Vickery & Clarke on a wing display near the store’s entrance at a store in Bridgewater, N.J. More natural beauty products are heading to mass merchants in the next few months.

Mascaras have been a bright spot at drug chains in past months, and CVS offered a buy-one-get-one-free deal on Maybelline (with a CVS Extra Care card) that drew the attention of shopper Marjorie Simon at a Princeton, N.J., CVS. “I like to stock up so I can make sure I discard older mascaras,” she said.

And in color cosmetics, the blockbusters are not out in as much quantity, one buyer said, but in higher quality with value. One retailer also said products such as Jane Cosmetics provide a good value for people looking for a fresh look for the holidays. Walgreens has put Jane in a highly visible location at a store in Edison, N.J., with the products on a display near promotions and fragrances.

Indeed, there are indications consumers are seeking value. A kiosk that dispenses coupons linked to Extra Care at CVS had a line of three people on a store visit the Sunday following Black Friday.

A handful of buyers expressed concern that price slashing has gone so deep at department stores that mass merchants could lose out. But even those sources said convenience is still on the side of drug and discount stores. A few buyers chastised the press for causing all the doom and gloom and proclaimed they have to hold out hope for the holiday selling period.

Industry observer Allan Mottus summed the season up by calling it strange, but not as bad as expected. “I don’t think it’s as bad as everyone says. The masses were out over the weekend,” he noted. According to the National Retail Federation, the average shopper spent $372.57 over the holiday period, up 7.2 percent versus last year.

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