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Black Friday passed, North Oakland retailers see slow start to holiday buying season

on November 30, 2009

Full-bellied, bleary-eyed, and shaking off the last vestiges of their turkey-induced tryptophan hangovers, shopoholics and bargain-hunters nationwide kicked off the holiday spending season last week, lining up before dawn the morning after Thanksgiving to raid their favorite stores on Black Friday. But while consumers flocked to big-box stores across the Bay Area, local North Oakland retailers reported a much quieter beginning to the year’s shopping season.

At Rockridge Home on College Avenue Monday afternoon, Brian Schirber rang up a customer at the cash register, then looked out from behind the counter at a store full of furniture, books, and cute conversation pieces, yet nary a moneyed peruser. Outside the store, neon banners advertised 20 percent discounts. Sales on Friday and over the weekend were “on-line for the year,” Schirber said, but “no one’s lining up waiting for the store to open.”

Like so many of the small, niche stores in Rockridge and North Oakland, Schirber said his shop relies more on spur-of-the-moment gift buyers than the commodity-crazed, credit-card wielding, game-planning purchasers that famously descend on larger chain stores this time of year. “Mostly we do a lot of last-minute gifts and gift wrapping here,” Schirber said. “Hostess gifts, people from out of town who come in to buy a present for someone, last-minute stuff like that.”

At shopping malls around the Bay Area, and in some the region’s more suburban locales, shoppers lined up before dawn the morning after Thanksgiving, swarming stores like Toys R Us, Best Buy, and JCPenney to get a head start on their holiday lists. Consumers nationwide spent some $10.66 billion on the day, according to the national research firm ShopperTrak, a half-percent increase over 2008’s Black Friday. Black Friday’s ominous moniker refers partially to the day’s snarled traffic and checkout lines, and partially to retailers’ hopes that the buying frenzy will move their financial records into the black.

But in North Oakland, retailers are still waiting for the kick to come. “We don’t have the Black Friday phenomenon here,” Eve Sheehan said from behind the counter at Pendragon Books. “Probably closer to Christmas you’ll see things pick up much more.” Sheehan said that Pendragon does see a noticeable increase in business around the holiday season, but that it tends to build slowly and gradually with casual shoppers – much like Schirber mentioned down the street at Rockridge Home – rather than a mass mob the weekend after Thanksgiving.

Across the street from Pendragon, employees at the venerable Rockridge Kids reported a similarly underwhelming weekend of “pretty normal” sales. “Maybe there’s more going on in the malls where there’s bigger stores,” said one employee. “But around here it’s pretty quiet.”

A couple miles west of Rockridge, at the Goodwill Industries store on San Pablo Avenue, a steady trickle of customers searched through racks of secondhand clothing and shelves of used household appliances. Employees seemed surprised at the notion of a holiday surge at their store. One cashier, who declined to give her name, rang up a customer, behind whom a short line had gathered.

“No Black Friday here,” the cashier said brusquely as she punched the register. “Not at all.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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