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If this year's Black Friday fever serves as any indication, there are some in-store retail experiences that a computer or smartphone can't replicate.
Intrepid shoppers in the Twin Cities still bundled up at midnight and waited outside bricks-and-mortar stores for those omnipresent doorbusters. Even beyond those heavily discounted goods, it's clear that the Black Friday bargain hunt is still a treasured ritual for many, and one that experts say won't go away anytime soon.
Consider the Monsrud family of Montrose, Minn. Every Black Friday, they head out to a J.C. Penney store to buy a seasonal snow globe. "It's a tradition for us," said Dave Monsrud, the family's patriarch, while shopping Friday with his wife, Nancy, and their 12-year-old daughter, Anna, at Ridgedale Center in Minnetonka. "This is a family activity for us every year."
And stores increasingly serve as tactile showrooms for shoppers to touch, sample and try on consumer goods -- before turning to their computers, smartphones and tablets to search for the best deals.
"There are lots and lots of products that you actually want to touch and feel before you purchase them, from clothing to golf clubs to automobiles," said Akshay Rao, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.
Still, the average shopper expects to do about 36 percent of the shopping online this holiday season, according to a National Retail Federation survey. Internet holiday sales are expected to total $37.6 billion this year, up 15 percent over last year, according to ComScore, a data analytics firm.
Most retailers this holiday season slashed prices heartily to attract shoppers to the stores in a tough economy. But consumers now get information about these sales and promotions from a variety of channels. The retail federation's survey found that nearly three in 10 people surveyed said they would check out a company's Facebook page for more information about a product, and two-thirds would read customer reviews on retailers' websites.
Target pulls a surprise
Angela Marasco, a personal assistant who lives in Minneapolis, is a good example of how a tech-savvy shopper operates. As she stood in line at the Bloomington Target store for its midnight opening Friday, Marasco fully intended to buy an HDTV selling for an advertised price of $298, a savings of $250. But just before the doors opened, Target employees handed out "surprise doorbusters" featuring a higher-priced Samsung 40-inch TV.
Marasco took to her phone and compared prices of both models on Amazon.com. The Samsung TV was cheaper at Target, but she ultimately decided to stick to her original plan of buying the HDTV.
"For retailers to get people in the stores, they have to offer great discounts, and they'll still do that," said Rachael Marret, president and director of integrated client services at Campbell Mithun, the Minneapolis-based advertising and marketing agency. "But they have to focus on creating more of an atmosphere or experience with shopping visits. Because otherwise, it will be tough to beat the convenience and the pricing of online."
Many retailers have turned to "geo-fencing" tactics to lure consumers to the fold -- that is, apps that permit deals to pop up on smartphones or tablets once consumers walk into a store. Retailers like Old Navy, Crate & Barrel and Macy's capitalize on a free app marketed by Shopkick, where a radio installed in stores can send signals to a users' smartphone. The Shopkick app recognizes the signal and it triggers a deal or rewards (called "kicks") to be funneled to the user. The rewards can be redeemed for various gift cards and other perks.
For shoppers hailing from a higher economic bracket, the age-old promise of high-touch customer service is often enough to attract them to the stores. At the Neiman Marcus department store in Gaviidae Common in downtown Minneapolis on Friday afternoon, every department seemed amply staffed to attend to consumers' every whim.
Want to try on that $1,075 pair of nude peep-toe Louboutin pumps? No problem. While Neiman officials weren't permitted to speak on the record, business appeared to be brisk.
Data collected in a survey conducted by the Harrison Group and American Express Publishing showed that affluent Americans were expected to account for 23 percent (about $69 billion) of total holiday spending this year -- and it's one of the few areas of retail that is seen as fairly robust. ("Affluent" describes those who earn between $100,000 to more than $1 million a year.)
Interestingly, Rao's research indicates that the "1-percenters who are not at all price-sensitive are the people who are potentially more likely to shop online, to the extent that they don't have to touch or feel the products." That's because "they figure they could be doing any number of things with their time instead, like being on their yacht or whatever it is that wealthy people do."
In short, Rao said, time really is money for the well-heeled.
Star Tribune staff writer Wendy Lee contributed to this report. Janet Moore • 612-673-7752