Black Friday slowed by Thursday openings; protests, arrests at Roseville Walmart

Maybe it was the iffy economy. Or, more likely, the fact that thousands of Sacramentans had already done much of their shopping the night before, after Thanksgiving dinner.

For whatever reason, Black Friday, the traditional start of the holiday shopping season, was relatively calm around Sacramento. The usual predawn frenzy for bargains was drained of some of its excitement by the door-busting activity that took place at major shopping malls Thursday evening.

Perhaps the day’s biggest drama took place at the Walmart on Roseville’s Pleasant Grove Boulevard, where a protest staged by nearly 100 union-backed demonstrators ended with 15 arrests. Part of a national movement, the protesters were demanding higher pay for Wal-Mart employees. The protests followed reports that hundreds of thousands of the retailer’s store workers earn less than $25,000 a year.

Elsewhere, shoppers agreed that it was one of the quietest Black Fridays they’d seen in quite a while.

“It doesn’t seem as busy. It’s very much in and out: the lines are faster and you can walk right up to the cashier,” said Erin Ellner, a Sierra College student shopping early Friday at the Galleria at Roseville. She was hauling bags stuffed with jeans, T-shirts, boots and other “door-buster” deals from JCPenney.

“It feels like a weekday. The hard-core shoppers came out yesterday,” said Dave Drever, who arrived at the Galleria at 6 a.m.

Still, it wasn’t as if the malls were ghost towns. The National Retail Federation predicted that 97 million Americans were out shopping Friday, far more than expected for any other day this weekend.

And there were still door-buster deals to be found on Friday. Drever scored one of them: an Xbox One game player, for $499 at the Game Stop store.

“They’re sold out everywhere,” Drever said.

At Arden Fair mall in Sacramento, thousands poured in late Thursday and early Friday. Many of the main stores – Sears, JCPenney, Macy’s and others – opened at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving and planned to remain open for a continuous 25 hours. It was the earliest opening ever for the mall, which opened at midnight a year ago.

“Because it opened earlier, it’s not as packed,” said Christopher Carter, 18, one of the night owls who was shopping at Arden Fair.

It was so quiet during the midnight hour at the Rest & Relax mattress store at Arden Fair, salesman Brent Walton joked that he might fall asleep. “I thought it would be nice and busy,” he said. “We’ve got plenty of beds.”

At the Arden Fair Disney store, Marcie Hudoc of Folsom bought a pile of toys for her children, ages 7 and 9, and proudly declared that she’d saved 20 percent on her purchases. “My husband chose to stay at home, but he appreciates the good deals,” she said.

“It is the most magical shopping day of the year,” said store manager Connie Goldie with a grin.

Some shoppers were determined to stick with Black Friday as the start of the holiday season, refusing to join in the Thanksgiving Day madness. Becky Milton, who was shopping at Folsom Premium Outlets with her husband and 18-month-old son, said they avoided the Thursday jump-start “for the sake of store employees, but also for keeping the day for family. Let’s keep Thanksgiving a little sacred.”

Around the region and around the country, merchants and economists kept a wary eye on the proceedings, mindful of the still-sluggish economy. The National Retail Federation has predicted that November and December retail sales would grow 3.9 percent this year compared with last year. But reports of weak consumer confidence added to the air of uncertainty.

“Fundamentals are not all that strong. We are creating jobs but at a very sluggish pace in California,” said Sung Won Sohn, an economist at California State University, Channel Islands, and the vice chairman of the Forever 21 apparel chain. “I think they will be cautious.”

It’s clear that the retail sector hasn’t completely come back from the recession. In the four-county metro area, October retail employment totaled 95,200 – up 7 percent from the October low point in 2010, but still about 5,000 jobs shy of the October peak seven years ago. Sales tax revenue generated at Arden Fair last year was still 11 percent below the 2007 peak, according to figures provided by the city of Sacramento.

Sally Hamilton, a business professor at Drexel University’s Sacramento campus, said she thinks consumer confidence is generally improving, but shoppers aren’t ready to splurge.

“They’re not going to bet the farm,” Hamilton said. “People are doing a better job of sticking to their budgets.”

At the Kohl’s on San Juan Avenue in Citrus Heights, retired state worker Jay Case said he and his wife decided not to use credit cards for their holiday shopping this year.

“We’ve kind of developed a budget,” he said, as he waited in line to pay for a crockpot and an electric griddle. “It’s going to be a low-budget Christmas, which is fine. We don’t want to spend more than what we have.”

Still, plenty of money changed hands throughout the day.

“I’m surprised – I thought we were in a recession, but it looks like it’s busy,” said Linda Nachbaur, one of about 100 people waiting in line to check out at Kohl’s. “People are spending.”

Some shoppers double dipped – hitting the malls Thursday and Friday. Sheri Marotte of Citrus Heights spent two hours at the Galleria late Thursday, until her three adult children conked out, and then returned to the big Roseville mall on Friday.

“They took their nap, they had their coffee, now they’re back – they’re back for seconds,” said Tracy Rainer, assistant manager at the Citrus Heights Kohl’s, surveying the scene early Friday.

Protesters demonstrated at three area Walmarts, although the demonstrations in Elk Grove and Folsom were considerably smaller than the affair in Roseville. They were part of a national movement targeting 1,500 of the retailer’s locations, according to the organizing group Our Walmart. The group said more than 100 demonstrators were arrested nationwide.

The Roseville protest drew leaders from the United Food and Commercial Workers, which has struggled in vain to organize Wal-Mart’s workforce, and others in the labor movement. Among those arrested: Bill Camp, head of the Sacramento Central Labor Council.

“I’m standing with associates all over the nation,” said Meiasha Bradley, who works at the store on Florin Road in Sacramento and spoke at the Roseville demonstration. “We want to make $25,000.” She said she earns about $12,000 a year, working 27-hour workweeks, and receives food stamps. Bradley, 26, wasn’t among those arrested.

The two-hour protest ended with 15 of the protesters sitting in a busy intersection about one-half mile from the store. They were arrested by Roseville police after ignoring warnings. They were charged with failure to disperse, issued court dates and released.

Amelia McLear, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman, said it was “business as usual” at the store. “We’re always willing to have a dialogue with our critics but it’s hard to have a dialogue with people screaming into a megaphone,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that there’s a vocal minority (protesting).” She defended the company’s pay scales and said Wal-Mart has an admirable record of promoting its hourly workers.

Wal-Mart made one of its Roseville employees available for an interview. Jeff Dierdorff, a six-year hourly employee who’s a management trainee, declined to reveal his salary but said, “I’ve never had any issues with what I get paid.”

Most Walmart shoppers ignored the protesters, or yelled at them to get out of the street. A few honked their horns in support.

Customer Tony Meyer, watching the protest from a few feet away, said, “If you’re truly not happy with what you’re getting paid, you need to look for employment elsewhere.”

But Roseville labor leader Jacques Loveall said he thinks the national protests are beginning to have an impact on Wal-Mart’s customers. “There’s plenty of evidence that the Our Walmart folks are getting people’s attention,” said Loveall, president of Local 8 of the UFCW. “Their sales are flat.”

Two weeks ago, parent Wal-Mart Stores Inc. reported that sales fell slightly in the third quarter at U.S. stores open at least one year, one of the most closely watched barometers in retailing. The retailer also lowered its profit forecast for 2013.