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Jennifer Marks

A holiday blessing?

Whoever coined the term "Black Friday" to describe the day after Thanksgiving and the kick-off of the holiday shopping season no doubt intended the moniker to be applied ironically.

Unfortunately, this year Black Friday has the potential to live up to its name.

Whether or not it will do so has become a matter of some debate. America's Research Group, a consultancy and research firm, is predicting a drop in holiday comps of up to 3.2 percent.

Simultaneously, the retail industry's leading trade groups — the National Retail Federation and the International Mass Retail Association — both released surveys concluding that holiday spending will be higher this year than last. Although their predictions are fairly anemic compared to recent years, a holiday sales gain of even 2 percent to 4 percent is better than none at all for retailers who've suffered through a crummy 2001.

And there are a lot of folks in that category. Indeed, only six companies have posted double-digit sales gains during the first 39 weeks of the fiscal year:

Target's discount store division, up 11.5 percent;

Wal-Mart's discount store division, up 13.6 percent;

Linens 'N Things, up 14.8 percent;

Dollar General, up 19.4 percent;

Kohl's, up 21.2 percent;

Bed Bath & Beyond, which doesn't release its third quarter results until Dec. 20, but which was reporting sales running 23.0 percent ahead for the 26-week period that ended Sept. 1.

Clearly, retailers that offer value, price and a broad base of store locations are winning the war for market share in 2001. And as consumers hunker down in 2002, these are the ingredients that will prove decisive.

Each of the six leaders in its own way also offers excitement.

At Target, Bed Bath and LNT, it's the excitement of fashion and newness.

At Wal-Mart, Kohl's and Dollar General, it's the excitement of value and assortment.

The new year is not likely to witness the roster of new store prototype unveilings and new format launches that have been customary over the past several years. Instead, it will be a year for tweaking and testing.

Out on the floor, merchandise and merchandising will need to become more compelling than ever. Consumers who are inclined to sit on their wallets will need to be skillfully enticed into spending money.

Just how much hard work will be required to get those dollars will become clear next week. On the day after Thanksgiving, the question will be who comes out to the stores and which stores do they visit. Will they buy or will they browse? Will they pass up the whimsical in favor of the practical?

It's going to be a tough season to parse. So much of what had been considered in the past as "typical" consumer behavior was off-kilter this year. The events of Sept. 11 have further muddled the picture. Toss in more than 900,000 layoffs since January — one-third of them in September and October alone.

Suddenly a flat holiday 2001 not only seems possible, it might turn out to be a superior achievement.

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