A Bleaker, Blacker Friday

Traditionally, Black Friday has been a festive occasion, marking retailers' return to "the black" of profitability as consumers merrily shop for post-Thanksgiving, pre-holiday gifts. This year, however, Black Friday might strike fear into the souls of retailers and their investors alike. Any dreams of healthy black profit margins are swiftly turning a deep, bloody shade of red.

Unlike last year, retailers have at least one glimmer of hope: Consumers aren't as terrified by the economic crisis this time around. But unemployment remains above 10%, home prices sink as foreclosures rise, and many households are trying to loosen the grip that Visa (NYSE: V  ) , MasterCard (NYSE: MA  ) , and other creditors have on their finances. In short, many consumers will likely drive a hard bargain before they shell out for any Black Friday purchase.

A Reuters report underlined the air of chilly doubt as we head into the post-Thanksgiving shopping fest. The National Retail Federation believes that holiday-season sales will decrease 1% this year. On the other hand, the International Council of Shopping Centers forecasts a 1% to 2% rise, compared to a 3.4% slide during last year's shopping season.

In another frosty sign, 70% of the 1,000 consumers recently surveyed by America's Research Group said they're looking for at least half-off prices on merchandise before they'll open their wallets. Ouch. Worse yet, retailers may have only themselves to blame; for years now, they've trained customers to look aggressively for deals. Troublingly, industry analysts believe that most retailers will try to remedy this dilemma by offering even more discounts.

Ominous signs are plentiful. Wal-Mart Stores (NYSE: WMT  ) recently cautioned investors about a difficult sales environment and price deflation. You'll find further evidence of consumers' cash flow troubles in a renewed emphasis on layaway from stores such as Sears Holdings' (Nasdaq: SHLD  ) K-Mart. And price wars on toys, books, and other popular gifts are brewing among discounters like Wal-Mart, Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) , and Target.

This cutthroat environment could mangle many weaker retailers. Can Borders Group (NYSE: BGP  ) survive such an environment in the key holiday season? What about long-struggling, deeply indebted Talbots (NYSE: TLB  ) ? How will luxury retailers fare -- especially those reluctant to cut prices by much, if at all?

Retailers with strong brands, solid management teams, and stellar balance sheets are investors' best bet in this increasingly grim climate, especially if the holiday season is a massive disappointment.

Will Black Friday be a boom or a bust? Take our poll, or expound on your predictions in the comment boxes below.

Amazon.com is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. Sears Holdings and Wal-Mart Stores are Inside Value picks. The Fool has an options position on Abercrombie & Fitch. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. The Fool's disclosure policy doesn't want to throw elbows to get that discount Blu-ray player, but it will if provoked.


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Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On November 24, 2009, at 11:11 AM, Gorm wrote:

    Consumers know they are in the driver seat. They refuse to buy if not ON SALE. Given the state of our economy, pricing weakness, I firmly believe we will experience a deflationary period. Retailers are looking for traffic and know to win the favor of shoppers, they must be enticed with at least some loss leaders. To that end I must give a thumb's down to Black Friday.

  • Report this Comment On November 24, 2009, at 10:04 PM, nogrthinker wrote:

    Hey, if the retailer can offer lower prices and remain viable, then maybe they should! If I see a 'Deal,' I'm afraid that my first reaction is: they were charging too much in the first place. No pity here.

  • Report this Comment On November 24, 2009, at 10:05 PM, nogrthinker wrote:

    Hey, if the retailer can offer lower prices and remain viable, then maybe they should! If I see a 'Deal,' I'm afraid that my first reaction is: they were charging too much in the first place. No pity here.

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