By and and  on November 25, 2009

Game on — and retailers don’t want to take chances with the fragile consumer psyche.

After more than a year of recession fallout that made holiday 2008 a retail Waterloo, stores will put their austerity strategies to the stiffest test when the season moves into high gear on Black Friday.

But the mood of shoppers is a stiff challenge, although after a year of tightened wallets and economic hardship, there is a perception of some pent-up demand among consumers that could benefit stores. (See story, opposite page).

Lew Frankfort, chief executive officer of Coach, said consumers have been trained to wait for sales, and the response of retailers to that face-off will dictate the tone of the holiday.

“While Coach does not go ‘on sale’ in our retail stores, we do expect that the atmosphere will likely remain very promotional at retail, irrespective of cleaner inventories, as the customer has been trained to wait for promotions,” he said. “We’re confident that this holiday will be better than last.”

Even as the consumer “is feeling somewhat better about the economy…she is looking for innovation, relevance and value — prices need to make sense,” Frankfort said. “She is also looking to be surprised and delighted. Playing it safe won’t work for retailers.”

More stores are opening on Thanksgiving Day and the deals will continue until Cyber Monday, traditionally the busiest day for e-commerce. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., applying price-cutting pressure on all fronts as it seeks to grab the biggest chunks of consumers’ disposable incomes, will get a jump start on Thanksgiving Day when it offers 50 online-only specials with savings of as much as 40 percent on electronics, video games and toys.

“The starting gun is firing earlier,” said Bill Lewis, executive vice president of Karabus Management. “The race is much more value driven with more online advertising. Consumers are using mobile devices to check prices. The consumer will comparison shop more and exchange more to get the best price.”

Wal-Mart made the first warning shot, pledging to match local competitors’ advertised prices other than limited-quantity doorbusters.

Kmart began its “Better Than Black Friday” doorbusters program on Nov. 6, along with “Blue Friday” specials throughout the month. Products include $15 Protégé boys’ basketball shoes, $6.99 men’s Basic Editions jeans and Little Letters Learning Laptops at 50 percent off.

Since mid-November, Sears Holdings Corp. has been advertising “Black Friday Now” doorbusters each Saturday on products ranging from home electronics and jewelry to apparel. The retailer, which is also touting its layaway policy, is suggesting customers reserve their gifts early, pay for them over time and pick them up right before the holidays. A Black Friday VIP Sweepstakes on Facebook and Sears’ Web site gives winners a $500 gift certificate and the chance to shop the retailer’s Black Friday deals today.

Kohl’s Corp. will have more than 300 items specially selected for Black Friday. Stores will open at 4 a.m. that day. The company is also offering specials on its Web site beginning at midnight on Friday.

Sam’s Club will open on Friday at 5 a.m. and serve a hot breakfast to members only, along with savings on 40 items. Advertised specials include Vizio 47-inch LCD TVs for $997; a three-piece 1/3-carat diamond and sterling silver bracelet set, $148, and toys for $15 and $20.

And, borrowing a page from the mass crowd, Lord & Taylor for the first time will open at 5 a.m. instead of 7 a.m. Mary Beth Sheridan, executive vice president of stores, said the retailer is responding to the competition. Also on Friday, L&T will give doorbuster gift cards good for $20 off on purchases of $40 or more to early-morning shoppers.

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