Marshal Cohen, an industry analyst with research firm NPD Group, says the last time he saw retailers be this promotional ahead of the holidays was in 2001, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the dot-com crash that brought down the economy.
He sees little reason to be hopeful about the holidays, noting a lack of appealing merchandise to drive foot traffic into stores.
"There's an absence of must-haves -- we haven't enticed the consumer," Cohen says. "What's going on out there other than [<b>Apple's</b> <span class=" TICKERFLAT">(<a href="/quote/AAPL.html">AAPL</a> - <a href="http://secure2.thestreet.com/cap/prm.do?OID=028198&ticker=AAPL">Get Report</a><a class=" arrow" href="/quote/AAPL.html"><span class=" tickerChange" id="story_AAPL"></span></a>)</span>] iPhone that's gotten people excited? Nothing."
Cohen expects holiday sales to increase by only 2.5% to 3%, compared with the National Retail Federation's forecast for a 4% increase. As for Black Friday, he expects heavy promotions to be one of the only ways for retailers to unload their inventories.
"I'm calling it Gray Friday this year because it's not as robust," he says.
But while Black Friday will likely set the tone for the holiday season, it is not the heaviest sales volume day for retailers, points out Craig Johnson, president of research firm Customer Growth Partners. That comes later -- usually the last Saturday before Christmas.
"Black Friday is always important but people tend to make it over-important," Johnson says.
Likewise, Cyber Monday, or the Monday after Thanksgiving, is not the biggest online shopping day despite all the hype surrounding it. However, the National Retail Federation expects the Internet to claim 30.2% of holiday sales this year, up from 28.9% last year, and many retailers will offer one-day promotions and special offers on Cyber Monday to get things started.
Johnson is taking an optimistic view of the holidays. He sees a 5% to 5.4% increase in holiday sales this year, predicting that steady employment and income growth will keep customers shopping.
"As long as they have jobs, they have income," Johnson says. "And as long as they have income, they buy stuff."