BLACK FRIDAY: Columbia area retailers cautiously optimistic about holiday sales

Business was brisk at Britton’s on Devine Street on Black Friday, as the clothier reaped the duel benefits of the kickoff of the holiday shopping season and the kickoff of a Carolina-Clemson home football game.

In addition to traditional gift buying of upscale men’s and ladies’ apparel, out-of-towners coming back to their native Columbia for Saturday’s game and the holiday were snapping up clothes they couldn’t get elsewhere.

“Traffic is fabulous,” store manager Perry Lancaster said. “It’s even better than last year.”

But experts predict that retail sales gains in this year’s holiday season will be modestly higher at best, as the nation continues to climb out of the worst recession since the Great Depression.

The National Federation of Retailers expects sales in November and December to grow 3.9 percent, compared to a 3.5 percent boost last year. The forecast is higher than the 10-year average holiday sales growth of 3.3 percent and the kind of increase that economists would consider robust.

The federation noted that the U.S. economy is “balancing continued uncertainty in Washington and an economy that has been teetering on incremental growth for years.” It also cited some bright spots, including higher home sales and the willingness of consumers to pull the trigger on larger-ticket items such as appliances and cars.

They said retailers are “cautiously optimistic” that the holiday season – which accounts for 20 to 40 percent of their business – will be a good one.

Paige Watson of The Learning Shop toy stores in Lexington and Irmo shared that optimism.

“We’re up from last year,” she said, while restocking shelves after the stores’ 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. door-buster sale Friday.

She said the most popular item this year was the Rainbow Loom, which helps children make bracelets out of rubber bands.

But Black Friday – named because that’s the day retailers’ bottom lines so often get into the black – is no longer the only game in town.

Merchants, desperate to attract shoppers in a battle with online retailers, have in recent years begun opening on Thanksgiving Thursday. The Thursday hours are a reaction to what the federation survey showed as an anticipated dip in holiday shopping during the four-day weekend, to an expected 140 million this year from 142 million last year.

And the sales did bring people out.

At the Harbison Wal-Mart on Thanksgiving, Essence Young and her seven sisters had their bargain-hunting down to a science, with each staking out a different deal station in the store prior to the 6 p.m. sales kickoff.

“We’ve been talking about this for two weeks,” she said. “Its fun, but it’s about saving money also.”

At the Lexington Best Buy, shoppers were snapping up tablets, large-screen TVs and other electronic gear in three door-buster sales, at 6 p.m. Thursday, midnight Friday and 10 a.m. Friday.

“Things are going amazing,” manager Mechelle Carey said. “It feels like a really busy day.”