Business & Real Estate

Sacramento consumers excited but cautious as they hit Black Friday

Sacramentans show up for Black Friday, but keep spending in check

Shoppers flocked to area malls, but remain wary about the economy.
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Shoppers flocked to area malls, but remain wary about the economy.

Sacramentans showed up for Black Friday, but they kept their purchasing in check, maintaining much of the same caution they’ve exhibited since the economy crumbled beneath their feet seven years ago.

There was certainly no shortage of sleep-deprived Sacramentans stumbling through Arden Fair mall in the early-morning hours, emerging from Sears, Macy’s and other stores clutching bags of door-busting bargains. Yet many consumers said the recession remains a vivid memory, and they’re still not quite ready to splurge.

“I don’t think it’s at full recovery, but we’ve stabilized,” said Elizabeth Huber, who works at the California Energy Commission, as she took a break while her teenage daughters roamed the mall. “People are spending money, but they’re spending it wisely – they’re stretching.”

Huber said she can’t shake memories of Furlough Fridays, when she and other state workers were forced to take unpaid days off to help balance the state budget. She remains wary of spending too much.

“People took big hits,” she said. “I took a 15 percent hit. A lot of people lost homes during that time.”

Economists say her conservatism is well grounded, even though the Sacramento area economy has made considerable strides since the depths of the recession. On the one hand, the region’s unemployment was at a relatively low 5.5 percent in October, down from 6.6 percent a year earlier, and 21,000 jobs have been created in the past 12 months.

But there’s still a ways to go. Income growth has been spotty, and the Sacramento region is the only major metropolitan area in California that hasn’t regained all the jobs lost during the recession, said economist Jeff Michael of the University of the Pacific. Sacramento has recaptured most of the 109,400 jobs that disappeared, but is still 4,100 jobs short of peak employment. That was recorded in June 2007, when payrolls totaled 933,700 in the four-county area.

“We’re closing in on that,” Michael said. “We’re almost there.”

Michael said the holiday shopping season should be reasonably strong, despite indications that the economy is slowing down nationally and around the world.

“I expect to see another decent gain in consumer activity this season, similar to last season,” Michael said. “Nothing explosive, but certainly positive. Households are incrementally in a better position to spend.” He said declines in gasoline prices are helping free up disposable income.

The National Retail Federation said consumers are expected to spend 3.7 percent more during the entire holiday season – defined as November and December – compared with a year ago. Yet retailers were expected to work harder than ever to get consumer dollars.

Macy’s, for instance, said earlier this month that it was going to rev up its discounting after posting disappointing third-quarter revenue. “We are shifting our organization into overdrive to focus on sales-driving activities in the holiday shopping season,” said Chief Executive Terry Lundgren in announcing the third-quarter results.

Olivia Cortez, a hairstylist strolling through Arden Fair on Friday, said she was shopping “just for the kids” and keeping a grip on her wallet. The reason: Business is better at the salon where she works, but not as good as it could be.

“Some days are slow, some days are busy,” she said.

Construction worker Todd Brown doesn’t have a lot of free time, by contrast. A glazier, he’s been working six days a week on commercial buildings in the Bay Area the past couple of years and will soon start work on the hotel the Sacramento Kings have begun building next to their new downtown arena.

“I’m busier than I’ve ever been,” Brown said. “The company’s got a two-year backlog of work.”

Even so, he and his wife, Patty, who works for an area school district, weren’t planning to go wild at Arden Fair. “I would imagine we’ll spend pretty much the same,” Patty said.

Another shopper, Susan Perry, said she’s “still a little conservative” with her money, a result of the not-so-long-ago recession. “I still know people out of work,” said Perry, a manager at a UC Davis Health Care System clinic.

Arden Fair was bustling at midmorning Friday but was hardly jam-packed. Not a big surprise: Retail experts said Black Friday crowds gradually have been thinning out over the years as the date diminishes as the true launch of the holiday shopping season.

The retail federation said a whopping 40 percent of Americans began their holiday shopping before Halloween, and e-commerce continues to gain in popularity among those who want to skip the malls. The number of people who actually shopped during Black Friday weekend fell 5 percent last year, the federation said.

Of course, some folks rushed to get to the stores as soon as possible, even if it meant cutting short Thanksgiving.

On Thursday evening, Justin and Jessica Keithline were among the hundreds who headed to the Target on Broadway in Sacramento. Their goal was to get the lion’s share of their shopping completed in one fell swoop – not just for the holidays but for the year ahead.

“This is my only day off to get stuff,” said Justin, who works in food service.

The thrill of finding great deals lured early birds to the Walmart Supercenter in West Sacramento late Thursday. Eric Williams found himself at the back of a long line, which snaked through the produce section, waiting not-so-patiently for the chance to buy a 32-inch television that was selling for $125.

This wasn’t Williams’ first Thanksgiving shopping rodeo. “I’ve been here a couple of years before,” he said, adding that he got a good deal on a tablet computer last year.

Shoppers flocked to area malls, but remain wary about the economy.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler