On Black Friday, believers, skeptics hit the malls

* Different malls reflect unequal economic reality

* Recession left 55 percent worse off

* “The civilized Black Friday experience”

By Helen Chernikoff and Sarah McBride

McLEAN, VIRGINIA/LOS ANGELES, Nov 27 (BestGrowthStock) – At Tysons
Galleria, an upscale shopping mall in northern Virginia, Black
Friday meant black tie, Gucci and marble floors.

For the weekend after Thanksgiving that officially kicks
off the holiday spending season, the mall hired male
model/actors, dressed them in white gloves and top hats and
paid them to welcome shoppers with witticisms and compliments.

“This is the upper echelon,” observed Matt Baldwin, 37, a
Galleria “greeter.” “Like a lot of actors, I’ve worked retail
so I know what these people are wearing. They’re wearing jeans,
but they’re $350 jeans.”

Meanwhile, across the country in Los Angeles’ Eagle Rock
Plaza, shoppers shuffled in from the parking lot unattended,
bleary-eyed from chasing bargains all night. Instead of Chanel,
they found $5 tablecloths at Anna’s Linens with not even a
mid-priced mall standby like Gap (GPS.N: ) in sight.

Shoppers’ experiences at the two malls illustrate the
uneven quality of the U.S. economic recovery. Affluent Galleria
shoppers can scoff at the Black Friday weekend’s promises of
bargains galore. At Eagle Rock, they are Black Friday
believers, convinced it helps them afford the holidays.
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For a graphic on Black Friday traffic and holiday sales:

http:/r.reuters.com/dyk66q

Reuters Insider reports: [ID:nRTV166827 [ID:nRTV161989]

For other holiday retail stories [ID:nUSHOLIDAY]

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“I don’t believe in Black Friday,” said Shamideh Bazel, 63,
of the day that kicks off the U.S. holiday shopping season.

A Muslim native of Iran whose family celebrates Christmas
as a fun secular holiday, she said curiosity drew her to the
Galleria that day. She considers Black Friday a ploy on
retailers’ part to induce shoppers to spend, not save.

A Pew Research Center survey found 55 percent of the
country lost economic ground during the recession, losing jobs
and defaulting on loans. Those folks tend to shop Eagle Rock.

There was no Gucci on Raul Aficionado’s shopping list.

At 9 a.m., Aficionado, 30, was on his third mall of the
day. His odyssey started with a Wal-Mart (WMT.N: ), but he got
too cold waiting in line at 2 a.m., and instead headed for
another local mall with a Disney (DIS.N: ) store so he could buy
stuffed animals marked down to $8 from $25, he said.

BURQUAS AND BETSEY JOHNSON

The other 45 percent of the country held its own, according
to the survey, conducted in May of a nationally representative
sample by telephone. They were affected, but did not suffer
serious economic hardship. That would be the Galleria gang.

Proximity to the nation’s capital supports the local
economy in Fairfax County, home to the Galleria, elite
lobbyists and many of Congress’ wealthier members.

Oil billionaires, including burqua-clad Saudi princesses,
make the adjacent Ritz-Carlton their Washington, D.C. home
base, and tour the Galleria on chaperoned shopping sprees.

“This is the civilized Black Friday experience,” said
Galleria spokeswoman Aba Kwawu.

Consumer spending accounts for about 70 percent of the
$14.3 trillion American economy, and Black Friday is a key time
for merchants. Some store chains generate up to a third of
their annual sales during the November-December period.

Most forecasts call for slightly more spending in 2010.

The National Retail Federation forecast a 1 percent
increase this year to $688.87 in holiday spending per person.

So the Galleria discounts, and deeply — but discreetly.

“You can buy Prada, Gucci, at discount. It’s the experience
and the way they present it that’s different,” Kwawu said.

Apparel retailer Betsey Johnson was offering 40 percent off
its offbeat women’s fashions. At cookware chain Williams-Sonoma
Inc (WSM.N: ), customers could snag up to 75 percent discounts.

Savvy shoppers were suspicious.

“I know there aren’t a ton of legitimate deals,” said
Allison Hartnett, 20, a student at Miami University in Oxford,
Ohio who said she’ll spend about $1,000 on gifts this year.

LOSING JOBS, BUYING GIFTS

Earlier this fall, the National Bureau of Economic
Research, considered the arbiter of recessions, designated June
2009 as the end of the slump, which started in December 2007.

Yet today, more than half of those who lost ground say they
are just getting by, at best, according to the Pew study.

“I’m just buying gifts for my closest friends and family
this year,” said Jessica Rodriguez, 26, outside Eagle Rock’s
Target (TGT.N: ). She’ll spend $500, down from $800-$900.

The physical therapy business where she works as an
assistant closed a couple of offices. Colleagues got laid off.

In Eagle Rock’s Los Angeles County, which was hit
particularly hard by the housing market downturn, the median
income of $55,452 is near the national median of $52,029,
according to the latest census data.

By contrast, Fairfax County’s median income is $107,075.

Like physical-therapy assistant Rodriguez, Eagle Rock
shoppers tend to work low-to-mid paying jobs in businesses that
cater to the ritzier neighborhoods that surround them. That
includes nursing, accounting, plumbing and construction.

“Two Americas were revealed by the recession,” said Diane
Swonk, chief economist of Mesirow Financial. “What it’s giving
us is a real bifurcation of consumer spending.”

Still, even at Eagle Rock, American optimism lives.

“I feel better this year,” said Emily Irlan, who has been
out work since she lost her human resources job last year. “I
really think the election is showing the government, ‘Stop
spending our money, and don’t raise our taxes.'”

She paid for her Cuisinart coffee maker, down to $90 from
$160, out of savings.

She’s confident she will eventually get another job.
“America will bounce back,” she said. “We always do.”
(Reporting by Helen Chernikoff and Sarah McBride; editing by
Todd Eastham)

On Black Friday, believers, skeptics hit the malls