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Jackson Garcia, 6, center, is flanked by his cousins Emma Bennett, 6, left, and her sister Elizabeth Bennett on Wednesday as they survey a sprawling series of model train sets at the Winter Wonderland at the Maine Mall. Retailers are gearing for the heavily hyped Black Friday this week, but it isn’t actually the busiest shopping day of the holiday season. Staff photo by Ben McCanna
Maine retailers are staffing up, stocking up and decking out their showrooms with holiday cheer to prepare for the heavily hyped Black Friday, but the actual busiest shopping day of the season likely won’t come until a month later.
Of course, that will depend on various factors including the always unpredictable Maine winter weather and consumers’ continuing shift toward online shopping, retail analysts said. Overall, retailers in Maine said they are going into the season with a fair amount of optimism.
Contrary to popular belief, the Friday before Christmas – not Black Friday – was the busiest shopping day in Maine in 2016, according to a study of 450 retailers in the state. The study, by San Francisco-based merchant technology firm Womply Inc., found that Maine retailers had their highest sales on Dec. 23, followed by Black Friday (Nov. 25) and then Small Business Saturday (Nov. 26).
“This analysis suggests that the consumers are drawn to the rush of Black Friday and then tend to procrastinate shopping until the last minute,” said Womply spokesman Dan Lalli. “Local retailers in Maine can use this information to plan their promotions and staffing this holiday season.”
Another misconception is that Mainers shop primarily at big retail chains on Black Friday and then shift their focus to smaller, locally owned merchants the next day on Small Business Saturday. In fact, both types of retailer benefit from boosted sales on both days.
In 2016, Maine retailers took in an average of 176 percent of normal daily revenue on the Friday before Christmas, 174 percent on Black Friday and 159 percent on Small Business Saturday, according to Womply.
“Black Friday doesn’t just benefit big-box stores; it’s also a better sales day, by far, than Small Business Saturday for small, local retailers in Maine,” Lalli said.
In Maine, all of the above will depend on what happens with the weather, said Curtis Picard, president and CEO of the Retail Association of Maine. So far, the forecast for Black Friday is looking good, ranging from a low of around 30 degrees to a high in the mid-40s with no rain or snow and partly cloudy skies.
Inclement weather in November and December isn’t necessarily a holiday-killer for Maine retailers. If it happens early enough, consumers can simply postpone their shopping until things clear up.
However, it can be devastating if a storm hits right before Christmas, because there’s no time left for retailers to make up the lost business, Picard said.
“If it’s that last weekend before Christmas, you’re going to lose those sales,” he said.
Another threat to Maine retailers this holiday season is the continued encroachment on their sales by e-commerce businesses. Picard said bricks-and-mortar merchants are making a variety of adjustments to better compete with online retailers, such as offering in-store pickup and same-day delivery of items ordered online or by phone, and adding entertainment, refreshments and other perks to make shopping in the store more enjoyable.
“I’ve seen a lot of retailers try to really improve the in-store experience for people,” he said.
Some of Maine’s biggest retail outlets are scaling back on their Black Friday business hours this year by opening at 6 a.m. Friday instead of midnight as they have done in recent years. Some retailers do so to allow employees to enjoy more time off, and to cut spending on overtime pay. Retailers that have 6 a.m. openings this year include Target, the shops at Kittery Premium Outlets and about half the stores inside The Maine Mall in South Portland.
“We’re doing a soft opening at midnight with 40 to 45 stores open (out of roughly 100), and then all stores will be open at 6 a.m.,” said Maine Mall Senior General Manager Craig Gorris.
Other retailers in Maine are planning to pull an all-nighter with midnight openings and late-night deals and activities on Black Friday. They include electronics retailer Best Buy, about a dozen stores in downtown Freeport and the retailers at Marketplace at Augusta.
Picard said he is “fairly optimistic” about the upcoming holiday shopping season, given that unemployment and gasoline prices are low and consumer confidence is relatively high. As for which items will be the biggest sellers, it’s difficult to predict, he said. Last year, furniture was a surprisingly hot holiday gift item, which Picard said could be related to adult children moving out of their parents’ homes as the economy continued to recover.
A holiday shopping survey of nearly 7,500 U.S. consumers by the National Retail Federation and Prosper Insights & Analytics found that gift cards are likely to be the hottest item this year, with each holiday shopper planning to purchase an average of four gift cards with an average value of $45 per card. The survey found that the top toys this year are likely to be Barbie dolls and accessories for girls, and LEGO sets for boys.
Nationally, retailers are expecting a slight sales increase of 2.2 percent this year, according to a survey by professional services firm BDO. The firm polled a mix of 100 top retail executives asking for their holiday season forecasts.
Last November, more than $307 million went to the state in the form of sales tax from sale of general merchandise. That was a nearly 7 percent increase over November spending in 2015.