MANATEE -- A new player in the area's Black Friday madness is hoping to shake up holiday routines this year.
The Mall at University Town Center, open just over a month, will see its first Thanksgiving evening sales and Black Friday event. Not even mall management totally knows what to expect. Every market is different, so not too much can be drawn on how other malls fare during their first Black Friday.
"It's truly hard to tell. It's our first holiday and it's kind of difficult to anticipate," mall general manager Octavio "Tav" Ortiz said. "In our minds, we're relating it back to our grand opening weekend."
The Taubman Centers-managed mall is getting a jump on Black Friday where the majority of stores will be open 6 p.m. to midnight on
Thanksgiving, Ortiz said, then reopen 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday. Tampa's International Plaza, also a Taubman property, is not open on Thanksgiving, making Ortiz and other observers wonder whether shoppers will drive to University Park for deals after dinner.
Curiosity over the newest retailers to the area will benefit both the Mall at University Town Center and surrounding properties for Black Friday, said Rick McAllister, chief executive officer of the Florida Retail Federation.
"It will help certainly in the Bradenton area and the surrounding shopping areas that are there," McAllister said. "...Every time one of them opens, it's a boon to that particular area."
One segment that will help the mall bring people in this holiday is home furnishings. That retail segment is recovering, and the Mall at UTC added a block of home stores including Crate & Barrel, Lovesac and Z Gallerie, with more to come.
"During the last month, they had a 15 to 25 percent increase over last year," McAllister said. "That's purely a part of the housing market, and that's a great indication for how the customer is feeling."
The mall also has regional draws as well, where folks can line up at Apple or Williams-Sonoma, and the holiday will be the first time some shoppers step foot inside the mall.
"New malls pique the curiosity of shoppers," McAllister said. "Those developers understand what the consumers are looking for in terms of parking and walking and getting about. Those mix of shops in that particular mall is great."
No matter where people shop this year, expect more shoppers and more purchases. The Florida Retail Federation predicts a 5 percent increase in holiday sales over last year, above the 4.1 percent national prediction. McAllister credits seasonal residents and tourists pushing that number up above the national mark. That increase is also part of the 50 percent of people in a statewide survey who said they would buy a gift online -- a figure McAllister called "staggering."
Outlets expect strong turnout
The Ellenton Premium Outlets at Interstate 75 and U.S. 301 is traditionally the mall for discounts and exclusive merchandise that lure shoppers from across the region. The outlets are opening at 6 p.m. Thanksgiving this year and won't close until 10 p.m. Friday.
"We pride ourselves on having a diverse retailer base at Ellenton. More than anything, our everyday savings of 25 to 65 percent provides a huge draw for shoppers," said Sarah Ozgun, director of marketing and business development for the center. "Many of our retailers are offering additional holiday savings. Our dynamic mix of retailers, combined with quality savings, continues to be the biggest draw for holiday shopping."
Ozgun anticipates a strong holiday season for the outlets based on what she's seeing so far.
"We expect that customers will continue to find great values and unique items while shopping at Ellenton Premium Outlets throughout the holiday season," she said. "It's too soon to tell on projected sales, but we are very pleased to see so many people out shopping with lots of bags, which is always a good sign."
With the Mall at UTC being a new player, it could create an interesting pattern how and when shoppers choose to go to each center.
"The opening of a new luxury center changes the environment for holiday shopping in the market. Because of this, we do anticipate slight changes in shopping patterns," Ozgun said. "We anticipate that our 25-65 percent savings of name brand retailers will continue to be a draw for our shoppers. We also anticipate that shoppers will go from center to center to maximize their holiday shopping experience in the area.
"This is a positive thing for us, as we plan to see more new shoppers at our center this year because of the proximity to the new mall."
Closed for Thanksgiving
Some retailers and centers have their limits when it comes to Thanksgiving Day business, which is a rarity these days. Crate & Barrel won't be open, and ditto with Marshalls and T.J. Maxx. Same goes for Burlington Coat Factory, Costco, Dillard's and Publix.
While some consumers and consumer groups consider stores that open on Thanksgiving to be Scrooges, McAllister said "this is an overblown story of a backlash."
"Retailers are not leading the consumers here. The consumers are leading the retailers," he said. "If people don't show up on Thanksgiving Day -- and no one is making them shop, that's for sure -- then they won't be there. They won't open."
If anything, the focus and significance of getting out of the house exclusively for Black Friday shopping is dwindling as retailers offer more pre-Thanksgiving events and deals. Website Savings.com also analyzed 1.5 million deals from 2009 to 2013 and found the best deals for certain items are not offered on Black Friday. The best day to buy electronics this year was Nov. 1, apparel is Dec. 1 or Cyber Monday, toys on Nov. 26, and gifts and novelties on Dec. 15.
Spreading out the discounts will benefit the consumer, McAllister said.
"A lot of consumers are paying for Christmas out of cash flow, so they're trying to spread that out,' he said.
At the DeSoto Square mall, the shopping center is doing a 180-degree turn from last year. Instead of participating with midnight openings, the mall's new general manager Robert Tackett decided to turn off the lights on turkey day. Only J.C. Penney, opening at 5 p.m., and Sears, at 6 p.m., will participate in Thanksgiving Day sales.
"The reason I did that is because most people go to the big boxes -- Sears, Penney's and Walmart -- because they usually have deep discounts," Tackett said. Additionally, the tenants said it cost too much to be open during Thanksgiving last year.
Not only will the mall be closed on Thanksgiving, but it won't have ultra early hours either, only opening an hour earlier at 9 a.m. and closing at its regular 9 p.m. time. Special mall hours will start Dec. 20, 22-23 and 26 when DeSoto Square opens 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Dec. 21 and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Christmas Eve.
Tackett anticipates an uptick in shopping not only at the center, but throughout the area.
"I think since fuel prices have dropped, this year will be different than last year. People have more disposable income," he said.
That pattern is particularly important for lower-income families.
"I think there are going to be those in that lower budget arena that will see some extra money in their pocket because of not spending it on gasoline," he said.
Closing on Thanksgiving might be a good idea for a shopping center like DeSoto Square anyway. The National Retail Federation predicted that shoppers could be changing when they come into the stores this year.
"We could witness a sea change this holiday season as consumers' reliance on extremely deep discounts over the biggest shopping weekend of the year shifts to more of a 'wait- and-see' mentality around what retailers will be offering on Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday," NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said. "We are positive retailers have a few tricks up their sleeve that will draw their customers to their stores and websites, deciding the deals are worth it after all."
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.