NEW YORK (CNNfn) - Don't just sit there -- buy something. Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, will officially kick off the holiday shopping season.
On this day, legions of chronic shoppers shake off the effects of turkey and peach cobbler and charge into shopping centers, discount stores and outlet malls with enough fury to make the running of the bulls at Pamplona look like a production of Swan Lake.
Analysts predict sales will be about 5 to 6 percent higher than 1998. Last year, same-store sales climbed 4.4 percent over 1997, according to TeleCheck International Inc.
The National Retail Federation is predicting a $180 billion holiday season, with about $6 billion of that coming in on Friday, and with all the good economic news, people are expecting bright things from Black Friday.
"It's going to be a very, very strong day," said Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard's Retail Trend Report. "No question about it. But the weather has me a little worried. The temperature has been way above normal and who wants to buy a heavy sweater when the temperature is 65 degrees?"
Barnard expects a lot of activity to come from the discount stores, including Dayton Hudson Corp. (DH), owner of Target stores, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT), the world's No. 1 retailer, and home-oriented stores such as Home Depot Inc. (HD).
Black Friday is sometimes erroneously described as the biggest shopping day of the year, but in spite of the mobs of glassy-eyed shoppers you see on the evening news, many are just window shopping.
"People will be jamming the stores, trying things on," Barnard said, "and developing their Christmas lists. While many (gift) decisions will not be made, the foundation for many decisions will be made."
The day gets its name from another era, when retailers who struggled all year in a sea of red ink looked to the day after Thanksgiving to get them into the black.
"It's a very important day," said John Konarski, senior vice president at the International Council of Shopping Centers. "But saleswise it actually comes in at around No. 8. The biggest shopping day is the Saturday before Christmas."
National Retail Federation President Tracy Mullin said Black Friday is not necessarily the barometer it used to be, but it's still important.
"If you don't see a gigantic blip in sales, it doesn't mean it's going to be a bad holiday season," she said. "It's probably not as important as it once was about 20 years ago, but it's still very important."
I need this?
If all the stores are going to be so mobbed, one might feel compelled to ask why you would want to torture yourself. After all, the potential for e-commerce abounds on the Internet. Shouldn't the quaint notion of actually going into a store to buy things be dumped into the La Brea tar pits with the other fossils?
Perhaps not. A recent survey by MOHR Learning, a retail training firm in Ridgewood, N.J., found that while e-commerce is picking up, holiday shoppers still prefer bricks to clicks.
The survey showed that 56 percent of the people asked said the ability to touch and feel the merchandise was their favorite aspect of real world shopping. Thirty-nine percent said they enjoyed the festive atmosphere and 36 percent said they liked shopping with friends.
"People still like to be out," Barnard said. "There's a social aspect to this. It's hard to change people's habits. Many people have the day, it's a family day, and retailers have specials."
The MOHR survey said women particularly liked the entertainment and social aspects of hands-on holiday shopping, with 47 percent going for the festive atmosphere and 43 percent preferring the buddy system of shopping.
"People still need to touch the goods," Mullin said. "Maybe it's the herd mentality. People like to be with other people."
And Konarski of the International Council of Shopping Centers said malls "really are the hosts of the holiday season."
Bob Bowman, chief executive of Internet retailer Outpost.com is ready to take on the bricks and mortar outfits. The Kent, Conn.-based company is launching a promotion on Friday to keep people in front of their computer screens and off the store lines.
From 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. the company will be give away gift bundles every 15 minutes.
"It's a big shopping day for us," Bowman said. 'We want to make it bigger and better. The mall is not a good experience. It's tough to find a place to park, it's too crowded."
Bowman said the company has been offering customers free shipping as well.
"You can't give away stuff every 15 minutes in a mall," he said. "People wouldn't be able to move."
Oh, what a tangled Web
How does the Internet fit into this picture? Preliminary reports from the e-commerce front are not encouraging.
While some experts are touting big numbers for online '99, others warn big headaches might follow.
Jupiter Communications (JPTR) warned that its research found the failure rates of e-mail customer service were on the rise. The company found that 46 percent of sites took five or more days to respond to a request, never responded, or didn't post an e-mail address on the site to begin with.
Market analysis firm Datamoniter found that less than 1 percent of all e-commerce Web sites offer live customer assistance, an important element to maintaining customer loyalty.
And Creative Good, a consulting and research firm, found that about 40 percent of shoppers in user tests failed to buy what they wanted because the sites were too difficult. The company warned that this failure rate could result in the loss of $6 billion for online retailers this holiday season.
Phil Terry, Creative Good's CEO, said a lot of the dot.coms are dropping a bundle on advertising when they should be directing money to improving their sites. He said Internet novices will get frustrated and quit a difficult site, blaming themselves for the problem, while the experienced cyber-shopper will know there are better sites available and click off into the sunset.
"There's going to be a lot of frustration in American homes this weekend," Terry said, "as people log on to a Web site trying to avoid the congestion in the mall, only to discover the online equivalent."