News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

November 21, 2009

MARK BENNETT: Struggling economy has retailers wondering what to expect on the annual shop ’til you drop day

TERRE HAUTE — Surreal is an overused word. So few moments in life actually live up to its definition.

Your first fistfight. Climbing out of a storm cellar after a tornado. And shopping on Black Friday.

The latter can feel like a mix of the first two, for the unprepared.

A couple years ago, I completed that surrealistic hat trick on the day after Thanksgiving, also known as “Black Friday” — the official start of the Christmas shopping season. (My first dustup happened when I was a kid, and we did the “Twister” thing in ’93.) Our first stop was Toys R Us. Sunrise was hours away. As we drove through the pre-dawn darkness and pulled around a corner, the store’s parking lot came into view. It overflowed like that foamy filler you spray into cracks around doors. Inside, shoppers who knew exactly what they wanted grabbed it, and tossed it into their cart. I gawked, as if driving past a car crash, as we stood in the checkout lines, which snaked endlessly backward through the aisles.

Later, the same thing happened at Menards. It took coffee and an Ultimate Omelet at Denny’s for me to regain my composure.

Now, in 2009, retailers wonder if the wildly surreal rush will still happen this Friday morning. The longest, deepest recession since the 1930s has ended, economists say, and the recovery has begun. But that comeback will be painfully slow. High unemployment will linger.

So will people still queue up for doorbuster sales at Terre Haute shopping hotspots?

Retailers — toughened, wiser and leaner after a 22-month downturn — are cautiously hoping for the best.

“I think everybody looks at this [Black Friday] with more apprehension,” said Todd Peterson, store manager at J.C. Penney in Honey Creek Mall. “There are still a lot of questions.”

The last Black Friday, of 2008, was rough. Financial markets had collapsed, with stunning speed, and the outgoing Bush administration hastily crafted Wall Street bailouts. Thousands of Americans lost jobs. Millions feared the same fate. Consumers tightened their holiday spending.

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