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Are you ready to face Black Friday?

The day after Thanksgiving is traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year. By Teri Goldberg

The presidential election made it abundantly clear that Americans were divided about whom should run the country for the next four years. But come Black Friday — the Friday after Thanksgiving, traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year — Americans will be united: It’s time to start seriously shopping for the holidays.

This is an interesting year because the shopping season didn’t officially start until the election was over, says Marshal Cohen, chief analyst at The NPD Group, a Port Washington, N.Y.-based sales and marketing research company. For many consumers, “the election was a distraction,” he adds.  So Black Friday will really be the mad dash it’s expected to be each year.

In dollar amounts, shoppers will spend slightly more or less depending on who’s doing the math. The average consumer is expected to spend $702.03, up 4.5 percent from last year, according to a survey conducted by BIGResearch for the National Retail Federation (NRF). In contrast, data gathered by Manhattan-based research and consulting firm NOP World shows consumer spending will be down or on par, says Cary Silvers, vice president of NOP World, which owns the Roper Reports.

It’s not surprising that in a mass e-mail sent to small focus group I’ve developed over the years — with varied interests and backgrounds — half said they would spend more and half said they would spend less. “I definitely plan to spend less this year because I have less to spend and a credit card bill that is still not paid off from last year,” says Lisa Lazzaro, a Tampa resident whose list seems to get longer every year with arrival of new additions to her already large Italian Catholic family. “I’m already spending more,” says Jocelyn Loleng, a Brooklyn resident with a large Asian-American family on the West Coast.

The good news for consumers is the ball is still in their court. Goods are plentiful and widely available. So consumers can wait for the sales. “I’m already seeing retailers blink,” says Cohen. Retailers will be competing for consumer dollars versus consumers trying to track down the season’s must-haves. Actually, there is no holiday must-have, says Cohen, which makes even a stronger case for the consumer.

'Tis the season to shop TargetExpect long lines at the value stores, such as Target, Kmart and Wal-Mart. Discounters are the number-one place to shop this season, leading the pack at 77.1 percent, according to the NRF survey.

More than half the people that normally shop at a department store also will shop at a value store, says Cohen. “Go into a department store. Look around. Every other person you see will also be shopping at one of these stores,” he says. Consumers have come to realize if they can get similar products at a lower price, why dish out the big bucks?

Now that the value stores have their own cache, it’s also acceptable, if not trendy, to mix and match high-end with low-end goods. The new look, called “cheap fashion,” makes it fashionable for guys to wear a $500 cashmere sweater with $20 khakis, or women to wear a Channel suit with Payless shoes. “There’s almost a sense of pride now to say, I bought it at Target or on sale,” says Cohen.

Apparel is still the number one gift-giving item. According to data compiled by NPD, 62 percent of consumers plan to purchase apparel as holiday gifts this year, followed by toys, movies, books and music. On the flip side, books, CDs, DVDs, videos and video games top shoppers’ wish lists, according the NRF survey. Clothing and clothing accessories follows closely behind.

Electronics is on the move. Hot categories include digital cameras, DVDs, MP3 players and camcorders. Loleng has already bought her boyfriend of five years a new G-5 computer Apple.

Unlike fashion, though, electronics don’t cycle every season. People who want the hot items buy them when they just come out at top dollar and then replace them with the newest gadget the next time around. Others wait for the price to go down. A DVD that cost $600 a few years back now cost $69. In the future, Marshall predicts that DVDs may even be a freebie with magazine subscription.

Getting out from behind the computerThere’s no boom or bust expected in cyberspace. Now that cyber shopping has become mainstream, online sales will mirror offline sales, according to a report released by market research firm Forrester Research.  The Cambridge, Mass.-based company estimates that online sales will climb to $13.2 billion, up from $11 billion last year.

Online shoppers may even leave the comfort of their own home to shop in the crowded brick-and-mortar world, according to the Forrester Research report. In an attempt to maximize profits in cyberspace this year, retailers are less likely to drop prices online or offer free shipping (which usually makes or breaks the sale for cyber shoppers.) Instead, many retailers will push shoppers to shop in the non-virtual world. But remember there are more goods than consumers this year. So wait for the sales!

Silvers of NOP World sees a boost in online sales just because more Americans are shopping online. So this may really be the year that shoppers will shop earlier to make sure the goods arrive on time. Expect a “big pop in (online sales) in the first two weeks of December,” says Silvers.

Consumers are also finding creative ways to cut corners. Practical items will trump luxury goods. “I might defer getting some of the kids' gifts until after they arrive here and can pick things out themselves, particularly clothing type items,” says Lazzaro. “So, I plan to take them shopping, I guess,” she adds.

Rather than spend less on the a-list, consumers will cut out b-list friends and family. “I just had custom framed a print for my mother at $250,” says Loleng, who plans to drop other relatives from the list.  But “we are not giving gifts to my boyfriend’s siblings–just the kids. I’m not giving gifts to my siblings other than my sister and brother who do not make much money. Clothing and cash for both of them,” she says.

Many consumers also are adding their names to their lists. More than half of consumers plan to take advantage of the sales to buy something for themselves, according to the NRF survey. Men plan to spend the most on themselves, averaging $116.87. Young adults are expected to dish out $114.69 on average.

So what’s on my wish list?

  • Cell phone — no, I don’t have one;
  • Palm pilot or Blackberry — it’s about time;
  • New party dress — it’s the year of the bar/bat mitzvah. Many of friends’ kids are coming of age;
  • Flannel PJs — my old ones are getting ragged;
  • Puppy — which would bring endless warm; and
  • Peace on Earth and health care for all.