The winter shopping season is a big deal for retailers. And Black Friday may be the biggest deal of all, if you believe the hype. Which is why it may seem odd to learn that in some key neighborhood commercial districts, Black Friday is pretty tame. In fact, in at least one case it isn’t even “black” anymore. Retailers in Manayunk decided to rename retail’s most fateful day and in Mt. Airy, they elected to skip it this year.
For more on “Black Friday” shopping in the business districts of Chestnut Hill, Manayunk, and Germantown view the photo slideshow above. For captions click the full screen icon and show info. (Jennifer Swigoda / For NewsWorks)
The winter shopping season is a big deal for retailers. And Black Friday may be the biggest deal of all, if you believe the hype.
Which is why it may seem odd to learn that in some key neighborhood commercial districts, Black Friday is pretty tame. In fact, in at least one case it isn’t even “black” anymore.
Retailers in Manayunk decided to rename retail’s most fateful day and in Mt. Airy, they elected to skip it this year.
“When you ask people, ‘Why were you waiting in line at four o’clock in the morning?’ It’s not for an artist-made piece of jewelry,” said Sherman Oberson, owner of Jean Jacques gallery in Mt. Airy.
Mt. Airy Black Friday? Not so much
According to Oberson, Black Friday isn’t really meant for small stores that build their identities on small things you can’t find anywhere else, and you probably wouldn’t know to look for.
It’s for big stores, with big advertising budgets and big stocks of big-name merchandise.
So in Mt. Airy, Black Friday isn’t a mad dash to find crazy deals at crazy hours of the morning. It’s not even an event in and of itself.
It’s more of a starting point for making the all-important December shopping season into something worth remembering, even savoring.
Merchants in Mt. Airy will try to make every Friday in December special with what they’re calling Late Night Fridays. Stores will be open until 8:00 p.m. or 9:00 p.m. Santa will visit the avenue and there will be live music and poetry readings.
The strategy here is so distinctly un-Black Friday that Mt. Airy didn’t even launch a big campaign aimed at shoppers for the day after Thanksgiving.
Oberson thinks the pitch to soak up the quaint atmosphere of the avenue will play especially well with the out-of-town guests whom come to visit local friends and relatives over these next few weeks.
Fran O’Donnell, owner of O’Doodle’s and main street manager for the Chestnut Hill Business Association, said the same ideas are circulating farther up the avenue.
“We like to call it ‘retail therapy,’” he said.
In Chestnut Hill? Okay, a little bit
The business association on the hill is planning a series of “therapeutic events” in December designed to immerse customers in the avenue’s ambiance. These include the Holiday House Tour Saturday, December 4, Sundays with Santa December 5, 12 and 19, and the traditional Stag & Doe Nights with live music, carolling and roasted chestnuts December 8, 15 and 27.
Avenue shoppers on Black Friday seemed to prove Oberson and O’Donnell right.
Michael and Melody Smulders were in town from Connecticut visiting Janice Graber of Mt. Airy on Friday. As they strolled the street in Chestnut Hill, Michael said, “Our mission is to stay away from Black Friday people.”
“We’re just going to specialty stores for one of a kind items,” Melody agreed.
Beth McLaughlin and her mother Iona of Long Island were visiting family in Plymouth Meeting and said they drove to Chestnut Hill just to get away from the mall out there.
“Instead of going to the mall we’re coming downtown,” Beth said. They said they weren’t hunting bargains, but instead “unique gifts.”
Ambiance and selection only produce so much in sales, though. Neither neighborhood was busy on Black Friday. “Retail therapy” takes time.
But O’Donnell thinks it’s already working. When local residents see businesses working hard to promote community events, he thinks they become more than customers. They become partners.
“It’s pretty cool when you have customers who want you to do well,” he said.
In Manayunk don’t say ‘Black’ Friday
Facing similar pressures across the Wissahickon Creek, shopping mecca Manayunk turned to girl power to rebrand the day.
“We’re calling it ‘White Friday’ here in Manayunk instead of Black Friday,” said Jane Lipton, executive director of the Manayunk Development Corporation. “We’re trying to position ourselves a little differently… our tag line this year is ‘Buy something special from someplace special.’”
Dreaming of a ‘White Friday’
The “White Friday” moniker was particularly appropriate in Manayunk, since the big attraction along the Main Street shopping district was a pull-out-all-the-stops bridal sale at Nicole Miller.
This designer gown sale can knock a $2,300 dress down to a few hundred bucks. You could even find one, like the sleek ivory bow neck job that owner Mary Dougherty showed off Friday morning, living on the $100 rack.
It wasn’t like the predawn scrum at a suburban Best Buy, but a short line of brides-to-be were waiting at 8 a.m. when Nicole Miller opened its doors. By 9:30 a.m., eight dresses had been sold.
Store manager Samantha Sciolla said the key is letting the customer take her time.
“You never tell them it’s their dress,” she said. “It has to be up to them.”
Of course, free “white” ice cream, a DJ for the afternoon, and the evening’s white Christmas tree lighting in Canal View Park featuring Nicole Miller models in those very gowns all help.
And so does the fact that not even a recession can upset certain priorities.
“No matter what’s going on with the world brides still think the dress matters,” Dougherty said.
“White Friday” lured Darlene Voorhees all the way from Cinnaminson, N.J..
“I wasn’t planning on getting the dress until after the New Year, and then when my friend told me about the sale on Wednesday, I said I can’t pass it up,” Voorhees said.
For Lipton and the rest of the Manayunk shopping district, White Friday’s apparent success was encouraging evidence that a focus on customer service and quality products will work even in tight times
“What we offer is charm, a unique destination, personalized service,” Lipton said. “When you go to a jeweler in our district, and we have four, you’re going to get serviced by the owner of the store.”
No Manayunk merchant expects suburban mall crowds. But Lipton thinks the lively scene at Nicole Miller Friday suggests the boutique pitch can get some traction if applied to all of Main Street, which it will next year, Lipton said.
More bustle in Andorra
One exception to that rule in the Northwest of the shopper who looks for either zen calm in Black Friday retail or the boutique experience was at the Andorra Shopping Plaza in Roxborough. There, more than a hundred people stood outside the doors when Kohl’s’ Department Store opened at 3:00 a.m.
“Because underwear is on sale, Santa always brings socks and underwear,” said Tish Gambala of East Falls. “And frankly it isn’t a mall.”