Time to shop

A J.C. Penney customer shops at the Citadel Mall store ahead of the holiday shopping season.

J.C. Penney will pass out hundreds of cards to its first customers when it opens Thanksgiving Day, offering coupons from $10 to $500 off merchandise.

Palmetto Moon will set up “$5 frenzy” tables of new and old merchandise outside its Citadel Mall store when it opens later that day.

Magnifilous Toy Emporium will offer downtown Charleston customers a chance to buy one building set and get a second for half-price, and some high-end plush animals will be marked down 50 percent when the King Street store opens on Black Friday.

Those are just a few of the many deals that Lowcountry retailers are laying out to entice holiday shoppers into their stores this year.

Depending on reports, merchants could have a merry year or it could be ho-hum.

At Palmetto Moon gift and novelty shop, CEO Bob Webster expects to see a double-digit jump in sales. The reason: Anything Clemson-related is flying off the shelves for the No. 1 football team in the country and the store is stocked with some unique offerings not readily available elsewhere.

“As long as they keep winning, we expect sales to keep going up,” Webster said. “We think it’s going to be a blockbuster year.”

At J.C. Penney, Citadel Mall store manager Calvin Tucker also is optimistic.

“We are expecting a strong season, if the year so far is any indication,” he said. “We started strong last year, but we ran out of merchandise. This year we are much better positioned.”

Not so confident is Nancy Sommer at Magnifilous Toy Emporium in downtown Charleston.

“We’re hoping to equal last year’s sales,” she said. “With pressure from online and big-box stores, we are probably going to see a decline.”

The National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest trade group representing the industry, expects holiday sales to rise, but not by as much as last year, citing some uncertainty among consumers over the economy.

The group believes sales will jump 3.7 percent, down from 4.1 percent last year, to about $630.5 billion. That equals nearly 20 percent of retailers’ annual sales of $3.2 trillion. Online sales will be up as well, rising between 6 percent and 8 percent to up to $105 billion, the NRF believes.

Less bullish on the shopping season is Britt Beemer, founder and chairman of Summerville-based America’s Research Group. His annual consumer research study suggests holiday sales will be down between 0.8 percent and 1.5 percent this year.

“I just think retailers aren’t going to have the deals they should have,” Beemer said.

He said his research shows about 40 percent of Americans, three times more than usual, aren’t sure what they are going to do on Black Friday, one of the biggest shopping days of the year, because they are waiting to see what the deals are going to be.

“If retailers aren’t careful, they are going to kill the goose that laid the golden egg,” Beemer said. “The retailers are either going to have to step up or die by a thousand cuts.”

The retail federation doesn’t see it that way, but is sensing nervousness among consumers.

“With several months of solid retail sales behind us, we’re heading into the all-important holiday season fully expecting to see healthy growth,” said CEO Matthew Shay.

“However, while economic indicators have improved in several areas, Americans remain somewhat torn between their desire and their ability to spend,” Shay said. “The fact remains consumers still have the weight of the economy on their minds, further explaining the complex retail spending environment we are seeing right now. We expect families to spend prudently and deliberately, though still less constrained than what we saw even two years ago.”

He added, “Price, value and even timing will all play a role in how, when, where and why people shop over the holiday season. Retailers will be competitive not only on price, but on digital initiatives, store hours, product offerings and much more.”

Slower job growth, deflationary retail prices and the mix of disappointing consumer spending during the first half of the year with the shift toward big-ticket items and services will contribute to the less-rosy growth rate in sales, according to NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz.

Still, he added, “There’s no reason to doubt that we will see solid retail sales growth in the final two months of the year.”

Consumers also are looking for deals earlier than ever to avoid crowds and choose from a better selection.

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A recent survey found 57 percent of shoppers, the most ever, started looking for holiday specials in early November, according to the NRF. That’s up from 54 percent last year.

“Thanksgiving weekend shopping has evolved tremendously over the past few years and can no longer be seen as the ‘start’ of the holiday season, though there’s no question it’s still important to millions of holiday shoppers and retailers of all shapes and sizes,” Shay said.

Retailers opening earlier each year on Thanksgiving Day also has eroded the hoopla of Black Friday in years past.

Beemer said his survey shows the mood of the American consumer is surprisingly gloomy.

“It’s not as upbeat as I would have thought,” he said.

He said an all-time low of about 32 percent expect bigger deals on Black Friday weekend, and about 55 percent, the highest since 2010, are focusing on one large gift and other small presents.

Retailers, this year more than any, control their own destinies, Beemer said.

“If they have the right deals and/or offers, we could see an explosion in Black Friday sales,” he added.

A Federal Reserve economist said merchants have hired more and stocked more for the season in anticipation of higher sales, but doesn’t know if consumers will buy more.

“With the job growth we have seen, consumers more broadly are well positioned to spend a little more this holiday season,” said Rick Kaglic, a senior regional economist at the Charlotte branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. “Whether well-positioned or not, it depends if they pull the trigger on purchases.”

Reach Warren L. Wise at 843-937-5524 .