Like nocturnal creatures of habit, Clark County shoppers crept into the stores in the wee hours of Black Friday morning, hunting for bargains such as the half-price socks at Fred Meyer.
The difference this year seemed to be that many holiday shoppers were trying harder than ever not to overspend, uncertain about the fragile economy, stagnant wages and the increasingly higher cost of living. Some hit the stores just after serving the pumpkin pie at Thursday’s dinner, getting an early jump on the day-after Thanksgiving sales, traditionally retailers’ busiest day of the year.
The earlier start and this year’s more budget-minded shoppers could be why Black Friday locally didn’t seem as frenzied as in years past.
By 6 a.m., there was parking to spare at Vancouver’s only Best Buy electronics store in east Vancouver. At Walmart’s Mill Plain Boulevard and Interstate 205 SuperCenter, the lot was half-empty. No police officers directed the traffic at Westfield Vancouver mall, Clark County’s largest shopping venue, and the traffic ran fluidly along Airport Way into the Cascade Station center near Portland International Airport.
Retailers still hoped to beat their sales figures from the same day in 2010.
“It is our biggest shopping day of the year,” said Paul Wolfe, store director of the Salmon Creek Fred Meyer.
At 4:45 a.m., about 120 store employees were on the job, said Wolfe, who would not discuss his store’s specific sales goals, but said he hoped to generate higher figures than Black Friday 2010.
“We always want to do better than we have in years past,” he said.
Wolfe opened the store at 5 a.m. sharp to a crowd of between 300 and 600 shoppers who were lined up outside.
Most of them made a beeline for the socks — a Fred Meyer Black Friday tradition — while some raced to the sale slippers, toys and electronics, and a handful lined up at the fine jewelry counter.
Many said they were looking only for advertised sale items. Others said they had already been to several stores.
“We started at 1 a.m.,” said Johanna George, a Vancouver resident who was shopping with her sister Janet Godsoe at Fred Meyer’s 5 a.m. sale.
They started at Walmart, then hit Kohl’s and Target, George said, adding that her whole family plans to spend less this year.
“We’re all on tighter budgets,” George said, blaming higher living costs as the reason she’s cutting back.
“The paychecks aren’t increasing, but the utility bills are,” along with health insurance, groceries and gas, said George, a stay-at-home-mother of two children. Her husband works as a mechanical engineer.
The holiday squeeze, affecting people with the tightest budgets, was one reason for earlier-than-usual openings at discount big-box stores, such as Walmart and Target, according to retail experts.
The stores wouldn’t open early if not for customer requests, explained Pamela Lindloff, a retail expert and associate vice president with NAI Norris Beggs and Simpson in Vancouver.
That’s why specials were put on display a day earlier at some chain stores such as Walmart, as many big retailers raced to beat out the competition by staying open on Thanksgiving Day.
Wolfe predicted Fred Meyer, which opened its six Clark County stores at 5 a.m., likely would re-evaluate whether to open earlier next year. “I don’t see us changing, but it’s hard to be that specific,” he said.
Not everyone out at the stores was there to shop. At Westfield Vancouver Mall, about a dozen Occupy Vancouver protesters gathered and walked around the mall’s interior, but did not try to disrupt shoppers.
Wolfe expects Fred Meyer shelves to stay stocked with popular gift items through the holiday season. However, he admitted, some items could be harder to keep on hand.
By Friday morning, the Salmon Creek store was all sold out of the hot-selling Angry Birds video game and Leapfrog’s LeapPad Explorer, a children’s personalized learning tablet.
“As soon as they came out, they were gone,” said Rick Harvison, who heads the store’s toy, sports and auto section.
But the store still had plenty of items on hand for shopper Sandy Dykes, a Vancouver resident who was at the store Friday morning trying to fill a few wish lists for needy children.
“I’m very blessed to have a job,” said Dykes, a registered nurse at Portland Adventist Medical Center.
Ross Williams, 20, was also feeling confident about shopping this year. He plans to spend about $100 on holiday gifts for his fiancée and his sister.
Williams, of Vancouver, just landed a job as a welder of cab racks for semi trucks.
“That’s a booming industry,” he said. “So I’m feeling pretty confident this year.”
At Westfield Vancouver mall, Brenda Hofman and her daughter Emily admired the venue’s multimillion-dollar interior makeover, completed this month. But the mother-daughter duo said they both planned to tighten up on holiday spending this year, even pooling their resources to buy one special gift for Brenda’s mother.
Emily ventured a guess that she and her mom weren’t the only holiday shoppers spending less money this year.
“It just seems slower,” she said. “I think it’s because people have less money to spend.”
Ray Legendre of The Columbian contributed to this report.