COVER- To buy or not to buy: The holiday shopping season kicks off

Hours before the sun came up on Friday, November 26, parking lots at Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Toys 'R Us and K-Mart overflowed, and traffic streamed up and down 29N like some surreal middle-of-the-night rush hour. Those arriving late– after, say, 2am– shuffled across the parking lots to find lines so long, they might have thought Mick Jagger or Angelina Jolie was signing autographs at the front. Indeed, Black Friday seems to have taken root in the national consciousness and may now be as much a holiday as the day that precedes it. 

According to recently released retail figures from the Chamber of Commerce, the Charlottesville/Albemarle area has seen retail growth of just over one percent in the first three quarters of 2010. Will the holiday season push that figure higher?

Judging from the first big weekend, it seems possible.

At Target in the Hollymead Town Center, an estimated 500 people waited for the store's 4am opening, many hoping for the store's best deal: a Westinghouse 40-inch flat screen for $298. Similarly slashed prices drew shoppers to the other big boxes. But what about the mom and pops?

This year, American Express launched an online campaign dubbed "Small Business Saturday" to drive shoppers to small, locally owned businesses– like the ones that line the Downtown Mall and dot the Corner and Barracks Road shopping center. The effort won 1.2 million "likes" on Facebook. But did it work here in Charlottesville?

"No one mentioned it in the shop," says Paige Mattson, who co-owns the Blue Ridge Eco-Shop on the Mall with husband Hakon. Still, she says, "business was steady all weekend."

Other store owners report similar bits of good news. Marla Cantor, owner of Cha Cha's in Central Place, says business this holiday weekend was "neck and neck" with the same period of the last two years. Although the figures are lower than during the economic boom of four or five years ago, she's pleased numbers are holding steady considering her store– like many others– does as much as 30 percent of its annual business in November and December. "Retail wouldn't be in business," she laughs, "if there wasn't a Christmas."

Kim Kuttner says her upscale kid's clothing and accessory store, Petit Bébé on Water Street, had its best Black Friday weekend since its opening in 2004, a success she attributes to slashing prices– shoppers got 40 percent off clothes Friday, 30 percent off Saturday and 20 percent Sunday. "It brought people in," she says.

But even steep price cuts couldn't lure participants of Buy Nothing Day, who attended a free clothing and gift exchange in front of Random Row books.

"It's about unspending," says the event organizer, Shelly Stern. "Not spending on material that will end up in the landfill in six months."


Upwards of 500 people lined up outside Target in the Hollymead Town Center in the wee hours of Black Friday, awaiting the store's 4am opening.

Target assistant store manager Jarrod Scott, on security detail at the front door, reported no problems with the crowd.

First in line: 23-year-old Mandie Drumheller arrived at Target at 6:45pm Thanksgiving night, ready to wait outside for more than nine hours to ensure she'd be one of the lucky shoppers to take home a 40-inch Westinghouse flat screen for $298 and a variety of goodies for various family members. "It's fun for me," says Drumheller, "so I do it for everyone else."

Forget flatscreens and video games. Frankie Dailey and Nate Golden, both 21, arrived at Target just after 1am with only one item in mind: a Chefmate handheld mixer, which normally retails for $7.99 and was on sale for $3.

From left: Ashley Fulton, Cheryl Matthews, Tori Matthews and Nikki Wells were all smiles at 3:45am, 15 minutes before doors opened, hoping to get great deals on bedding and toys.

Cashiers were waiting with smiles...

The store was filled...

High speeds were reached...

Monique Tyler worried the gaming chair and several other items she'd come for would be gone. Her fears weren't realized: "I found everything and more!" she exclaimed, praising her cousins for arriving early and holding a spot in line. "God is so good!"

Hours later, it was a very different scene in front of Random Row books, where a Free Market for "Buy Nothing Day" kicked off. "People come and share food and free things instead of going to oppressive big box stores," said the event organizer, Shelly Stern. Pictured from left: Jennifer Connor, Brandon Collins, Shelly Stern, Louis Oyola and Mo Nichols.

Stacks of comics were among the items available.

Clothes were displayed and mystery trinkets in a bucket were explored.

Will the no-buying lesson stick? Alexander Crisman, Leo Kuhlmann, Malachai Clark and Otis DeRamus enjoyed a box of plush friends.


Blue Ridge Eco Shop owner Paige Mattson says the first big holiday weekend since relocating from Preston Plaza to the Downtown Mall went well. "It was steady all weekend," she says. The store offers a variety of eco-conscious clothes, toys and household goods from soaps to a $450 solar generator.

A big sale coupled with seasonally cold weather brought the shoppers, says Petit Bebe owner Kim Kuttner, right, with store manager Robin McNulty. Among the most popular items: Patagonia for kids. "We sold so many jackets!" says Kuttner.

Although nonprescription sunglasses can make a great gift of stocking stuffer, something else brings shoppers flocking to the Spectacle Shop in December, says optometrist Terre Sisson: flex accounts. A benefit offered by many employers that allow estimated medical expenses to be withheld from pre-tax income, flex accounts expire on December 31 so employees must spend the money before then or lose it forever. Sisson, pictured here with Spectacle Shop owner Jon Bright, says glasses are an approved item! 

It's the first holiday season for Dani Antol and Heather McNulty, who bought paper goods boutique Rock Paper Scissors last March, but they say the weekend brought a "big spike" in traffic after a generally strong fall. In addition to notecards and journals, the store is stocked up with other gifts from lavendar sachets to handpainted porcelain trays and cups for desk accessories. On December 6, the store is hosting a gift wrapping seminar from 6-8pm. The $25 fee covers a few wrapping materials, and attendees will be given 15 percent off items.

Three years after the 84-year-old Young Men's Shop returned to its roots on the Downtown Mall after 11 years in Seminole Square shopping center, owner Harry Marshall says traditionally, Black Friday is "very good" for business, followed by a Saturday that's only "fair" thanks to the annual UVA/Virginia Tech football game that keeps most of his male customers occupied. A strong showing this past weekend has Marshall feeling  "cautiously optimistic."