The police officers who set up double metal barricades yesterday along the sidewalks of Fifth Avenue in Manhattan need not have bothered.
While the New York Police Department had erected the barriers to protect what they expected to be burgeoning crowds of shoppers yesterday from spilling onto the road, few of the bargain hunters turned up.
Traditionally yesterday – known as Black Friday – is the busiest shopping day in the American calendar when stores kick off the post Thanksgiving sales. Last year, about $20 billion was spent in American stores on that day alone. This time, only the discount stores appear to have flourished.
Yesterday, Wal-Mart stores, selling goods at rock-bottom prices, were so mobbed by bargain hunters that a 34-year-old security guard was trampled to death in Long Island as shoppers forced open the doors.
But across the East river in Manhattan, many of the luxury brand stores such as Gucci, Escada, and Versace on Fifth Avenue were empty. A few blocks over on the Upper East Side, Barney’s, the upmarket department store, was library-like in its silence with only four shoppers in its Yves St Laurent area, where one black velvet jacket had been reduced from $2,230 (£1,450) to $1,339. There were no takers either for a Barney’s own $350 mulberry-coloured woolly dog jacket.
While it was too early yesterday to ascertain how retailers had fared, Wall Street expects this year to be the worst shopping season since the recession of the early 1990s. The reason was within sight of any of the few shoppers on Fifth Avenue. From the stores near Central Park, one can just see the financial skycrapers on Wall Street at the other end of Manhattan, where the credit crisis erupted 18 months ago, and which has triggered a deep recession. With 240,000 Americans losing their jobs a month and banks slashing credit card and overdraft limits, many families have stopped spending on anything other than essentials.
Michael McNamara, the vice-president of SpendingPulse, which tracks spending across America and is owned by MasterCard, told The Times: “We have never seen the retail market this bad and decline this fast.” He added he believed that the only sector that will thrive during this recession would be food, with spending in some areas of clothing down 22 per cent in the first week of this month, compared with the same week the year before.
He said: “If you look at the electronics sector, you see that in August sales fell by about 5.5 per cent, that decline accelerated to 13.8 per cent in September, 19.9 per cent in October and 22.1 per cent in November so far.”
Mr McNamara’s statistics will come as no surprise to Circuit City, America’s second-biggest electronics chain, which applied this month for bankruptcy protection from the US courts and admitted to shareholders that its management had been “upended” by the speed of the economic decline.
In Circuit City’s Midtown Manhattan store yesterday, about 200 people eyed one-day discounts but comparatively few were buying, with just 11 people waiting to pay. Retailers are also being forced to compete with near-bankrupt stores that have slashed prices to generate some sales. AlixPartners, a US retail consultancy, estimates that there is $20 billion of liquidated stock stragnating on the American high street.
While early reports, including the tragic incident in Long Island, suggest that discount retailers across the country have been mobbed by bargain hunters, overall stores are expected to experience their worst performance since the recession of the early 1990s.