Shoppers get the VIP treatment

Retailers use pampering to boost holiday sales

Best Buy VIP contest winner Chi Nguyen steps out of a limo at the Best Buy in Dedham on the morning of Black Friday. (Aram Boghosian Photo for The Boston Globe) Best Buy VIP contest winner Chi Nguyen steps out of a limo at the Best Buy in Dedham on the morning of Black Friday.
By Jenn Abelson
Globe Staff / November 27, 2009

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Chi Nguyen slept soundly through last year’s Black Friday shopping blitz. But he has a good reason to get up today.

Best Buy is plying the 26-year-old math teacher and three friends with a limousine ride, special seating outside the electronics chain’s Dedham store while they wait for the doors to open, and early admittance for a private shopping tour at 4:30 a.m., a half-hour before customers crowd the place. To sweeten the deal further, Best Buy is giving the Dorchester man a $1,000 gift card to help kick off the splurging and a digital camcorder to document the event.

“This year, I’m feeling the recession more and I was planning to watch my money closer,’’ said Nguyen, who scored the shopping blitz with an essay about Black Friday. “But now I’m just going to splurge. I might just get blown away and ride the wave.’’

Discounting isn’t enough to lure cautious consumers in these recessionary times, when door-buster deals are every where. Now, retailers are rolling out the red carpet with VIP treatment for shoppers on Black Friday to set themselves apart at a time of tight budgets and grim sales forecasts. The pampering is a departure from the frenzy of long lines and sharp elbows - all in the name of a bargain - that in better times marks the day after Thanksgiving.

“The combination of value and service will be the great differentiator,’’ said Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst for NPD Group. “Customers don’t want to be trampled on, or fight for the last of four pieces of that great advertised deal.’’

Merchants are scrambling for a way to survive another dismal holiday season: Retail sales during November and December are expected to decline 1 percent, to $437.6 billion, after plunging 3.4 percent last year, according to the National Retail Federation.

So for Black Friday, typically the kickoff to the holiday season, merchants are looking to scoop up shoppers with door-buster deals and, now, pampering and freebies. Simon Malls is serving up Nestle Toll House cookies at its shopping centers while Natick Collection is handing out free holiday totes, and giving gift cards and subscriptions to Martha Stewart Living to shoppers who spend $100 or more.

JCPenney upped the indulgence ante for five winners of its Facebook sweepstakes who today will receive limousine rides, $500 gift cards, wardrobe consultations, shopping butlers, gift-wrapping assistants - and Flip Video cameras to capture the shopping experience. But any old customer can get a taste of the VIP treatment with the department store’s celebrity wake-up calls: JCPenney is offering shoppers rise-and-shine recordings from model Cindy Crawford, designer Kimora Lee Simmons, and members of the country band Rascal Flatts to get their Black Friday off to a bright start.

Boston University junior Brianna Reed was planning to cut back on gifts and avoid Black Friday until she won CambridgeSide Galleria’s Black Friday spree. The VIP treatment - the first CambridgeSide has offered for Black Friday - includes a reserved parking space next to the entrance, a $500 mall gift card, a free cosmetic consultation and $100 gift card at Sephora, two nights at the Hotel Marlowe, and a gift bag filled with freebies.

Now Reed, 20, and her mother, who live in Methuen, are preparing to get up by 6 a.m. for an all-day shopping safari.

“Before I won this, I was planning to spend only $200, or as little as possible for the whole Christmas season,’’ Reed said. “My mom wasn’t planning on going out either, but now she will probably do some of her Christmas shopping at the mall.’’

Jennifer Rotigliano, senior marketing director for CambridgeSide, said the mall is taking a different approach in this economy. “It’s not the same old thing of chaos and standing in line with everyone,’’ she said. “We wanted to make Black Friday a leisurely day, a VIP experience.’’

Most of the VIP contests were promoted through the social networking site Facebook - another marketing innovation, which allowed businesses to interact directly with potential customers and get them to consider shopping today. Even the majority of shoppers who didn’t win the VIP treatment will receive future offers or discounts through retailers’ Facebook pages. Some retail analysts say the push through Facebook also was intended to convert a generation of younger consumers accustomed to online shopping into Black Friday fans.

Nonetheless, the spirit of indulgence - on top of discounts - is expected to last throughout the season. Almost half of retailers plan to focus most heavily on special events to attract customers, according to a BDO Seidman LLP survey. Around the country, malls are spending more on marketing to drum up business.

“Customers are expecting that there will be a deal so stores and shopping centers are trying to make a connection with their customers,’’ said Ted Vaughn, a partner in BDO Seidman’s retail and consumer products practice.

But even the appeal of free money and VIP shopping wasn’t enough to hook some consumers. Sears offered 25 customers in different cities a $500 gift card and a preview shopping tour of the Black Friday deals on Wednesday. For the lucky few, that meant no need to show up today. No lines, no crazy shoppers.

Someone was selected in Boston to be lavished with special treatment. But the winner never showed up.

Jenn Abelson can be reached at

VIP shopping spree

VIP shopping spree

Lucky winner spent Black Friday picking out deals at Best Buy.


Chat transcript
Chat transcript
Recap our Black Friday live chat, with links, deals, and more.