MANATEE -- Local retailers are preparing for a Black Friday they believe will bring a strong launch to the busy holiday shopping season, led by surges in e-commerce and evening Thanksgiving Day sales.
With so much riding on the next four weeks, a poor showing could devastate any gains the retail industry has mustered this year.
But store operators are optimistic consumers in Florida will reach for their wallets, outpacing the national average while spending more than the holiday season of 2011.
"This is such a critical time for us," Rick McAllister, president and CEO of the Florida Retail Federation, said in a media conference call Thursday. "Retailers are ready. They're decorating their stores, playing Christmas music and merchandising."
Most U.S. retailers earn between 20 to 40 percent of their annual revenues in the fourth quarter, much of which is collected Black Friday and the final weekend before Christmas, McAllister said.
The federation Thursday predicted a 5.2 percent increase in sales for November and December compared to the same period last year -- topping the national projection of about 4 percent.
That translates to $58 billion in consumer spending for Florida, or a $3 billion increase over the two-month holiday season in 2011. It also means nearly 43,000 new seasonal jobs.
And this year, the industry has timing on its side. An early Thanksgiving has created two extra shopping days compared to last year -- with a total of 32 days now separating the start of the shopping season and Christmas.
"All of us have lists, with parents, brothers and cousins we have to buy for," McAllister said. "In tougher times, that's all you did -- many even downsized. In more
normal times, we also get stuff for ourselves. That really stimulates sales."
To capture the uptick, more retailers now are crafting an online strategy -- the fastest growing component to holiday shopping.
Although it remains just a small portion of the holiday spread -- 10 percent of overall retail sales -- Internet shopping is growing much faster than traditional brick and mortar spending.
The retail federation anticipates upwards of $3 billion will be spent on Christmas gifts via the Internet -- an all-time high.
More stores also are pushing their Black Friday door-busters into Thanksgiving Day itself. Big-box retailers from Walmart to Target are opening their doors early to consumers able to tear themselves away from turkey and football to shop.
But for the second consecutive year, those early-bird specials have triggered an uproar from retail workers, and their families, who fear the shopping craze has overtaken the holiday.
More than 80 petitions are now circulating the Internet, including one started by Target employee Casey St. Clair of Corona, Calif. Her petition on Change.org pleading consumers to save Thanksgiving garnered more than 200,000 signatures.
"Thanksgiving is the one day we get to spend with people we know," St. Clair writes in the petition. "I currently work two jobs, substitute teach and work Target at nights and weekends, so having Thanksgiving off really does give me that one day to relax and visit family I otherwise have no time to see."
Other department stores, like Kohls and Bradenton-based Bealls, open at midnight Friday.
Bealls bolstered its in-store staff by 10 percent this year to handle the big weekend ahead.
The retailer has planned a number of Internet deals, downloadable coupons that can be used in the store or online, and will offer 60 percent off items already marked as clearance at its Florida outlet centers.
The first 100 consumers in lines at the Bealls department stores this year will receive a scratch-off ticket with prizes ranging from an iPad to a $100 gift card or various amounts of Bealls' bucks.
All-in-all, the company is expecting a good holiday season.
"Black Friday has become a tremendous holiday in its own right," said Bill Webster, director of public and government affairs for Bealls. "We tried the early hours, the consumers responded, so we're doing more of it."
The Ellenton Premium Outlets has a long tradition of starting Black Friday early, with a Midnight Madness event that now has run seven years in a row.
This year, like last, many stores there will get a head start and open at 9 p.m. Thursday
"Each year shoppers show up earlier and earlier, so for the second year in a row, we will have over a third of our stores opening at 9 p.m. Thursday night to serve the shoppers who always come extra early and want to be the first to take advantage of the deals," said Sarah Ozgun, assistant general manager at Ellenton Premium Outlets. "Early openings are a direct result of shopper demand."
Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman.