Day of the Mall Stalkers

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On Sunday, I hit Tysons Corner Center, not far from Fool HQ, to do a minor pre-Black Friday mall check. My conclusion is that the mall was teeming with "mall stalkers." My theory: These aren't really shoppers; they're stalking, ambling around bagless but not exactly aimless. They're scoping out what discounted items they're going to tear each other limb from limb for at the stroke of midnight that will herald Black Friday.

I got the seriously eerie sense that this was the calm before the Black Friday storm. Here were a few of the things I noticed as I performed a little mall stalking of my own:

The Microsoft (NAS: MSFT) Store was one of the busiest stores I encountered. However, that might be more about novelty and newness than serious intent to purchase anything: the Tysons Corner stand-alone Microsoft Store just opened on Nov. 17.

Urban Outfitters (NAS: URBN) and its Free People unit both looked like the post-apocalyptic emptiness after some kind of urban warfare. Key takeaway: Hey, where is everybody? Kind of like that London scene in 28 Days Later. The leather short-shorts on display in Free People seemed awfully rejected and lonely.

Gap (NYS: GPS) and its Banana Republic concept could have had tumbleweeds rolling through, but that isn't too much different than what this retailer's been experiencing most of the time in recent memory.

Aeropostale (NYS: ARO) was one of the only apparel retailers I noticed having a fair amount of shoppers rummaging through the racks.

Abercrombie & Fitch (NYS: ANF) never ceases to amaze me with its bizarre, remotely disturbing marketing. The large portrait of a shirtless lad in a winter jacket gave me the willies (somebody please give that poor young man a shirt); then I realized the store I was wandering through, advertising that imagery, was Abercrombie's kids concept. (Apparently this store could also be known as "Beefcake Tweens.") I realized I had stumbled across the Abercrombie store for older youths when I saw that store's entrance portrait: shirtless male torso, no face in the portrait. Hmm. (Oh yeah, incidentally, the (dimmed) lights were on but nobody was really home at either store.)

There's method to the midnight madness
I wouldn't call my observations exactly scientific or predictive of what's going to go down at these retailers on Black Friday or the holiday season. Like I said, as empty as many of the apparel retailers appeared to be, I suspect many shoppers were simply waiting and watching.

I chatted with a friendly saleswoman in the Lucky jeans store (that brand is owned by Liz Claiborne (NYS: LIZ) ), and Tysons Corner's Midnight Madness Black Friday tradition has been going on for years now. As she described it, the event places an emphasis on the word "madness" (and merchandise selling super fast at Black Friday special prices).

Big retailers have caught on to the idea that more shoppers might be raring to go at midnight than at, say, 4 a.m. This year, major retailers like Target, Kohl's (NYS: KSS) , and Macy's are opening at midnight. Wal-Mart is jumping the gun on everybody by opening at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving, and Toys R Us set the bar even higher (or lower, depending on your perspective) by opening most stores at 9 p.m.

Of course, discounts make up the major impetus for Black Friday consumer feeding frenzies. The fact that retailers are opening earlier nationwide is just one more piece of evidence of just how desperately the retail industry hopes to lure skittish, budget-conscious consumers this year.

It's too early to know which companies will be the big retail winners (or losers) this holiday season. The day of the mall stalkers makes me wonder just how many shoppers are going to play a deadly serious game of chicken with retailers this year.

As much of a frenzy as Black Friday will be, there is an even bigger frenzy going on in the credit card world, and investors stand to make more money than the retailers raking it in this Friday. You can read about it in The Motley Fool's new special FREE report: "Your credit card may soon be worthless. Here's why." Click here to access it now.

At the time this article was published Alyce Lomax owns shares of Urban Outfitters. The Motley Fool owns shares of Gap, Wal-Mart Stores, Aeropostale, and Microsoft. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Microsoft and Wal-Mart Stores. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a bull call spread position in Microsoft. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a diagonal call position in Wal-Mart Stores. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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