But retailers aren't kidding around. For them, this season can literally mean life or death. They call the day after Thanksgiving "Black Friday" because, after months of losing money, it can finally push them into black for the year.
This season got off to a running start. Tantalized by a frenzy of discounts, we spent nearly $9 billion on Black Friday alone. Customers may have been scuffling, but the real fist fight is between the retailers themselves.
Analyst Marshall Cohen, with the retail industry research firm NPD, says it's never been so competitive.
"This is the year where we've really seen the change in holiday business," he told Sunday Morning Anthony Mason. "As a consumer, you have the choice of getting your type of product almost anywhere you wanna go. So that means everything has changed in the way retailers are trying to reach consumers."
Many Americans have become more savvy shoppers:
"I'm a tough customer," shopper Dayna Price said. "I will look anywhere."
"I'm not gonna grab the first thing I see," Debbie Welling said.
"Well, what we know is that there's a large number of Americans who spend 25 percent of their annual discretionary income in this four-week period of time," Seth Godin, a renowned marketing guru, said.
Godin says it's not enough just to sell a product any more. You have to sell a story. As an example he likes to point at his feet:
"These are my socks. They're made by a company called mismatch," he said. "They're for 12 year old girls, but I wear them anyway. And they don't match. You get three in a box; you can't buy two. Because girls wear them to school and say to other girls, 'Wanna see my socks?' So they're no longer designed to keep your feet dry; they're designed to be a conversation piece. And so what retailing is about these days, what marketing is about, is creating stories that spread. And if it doesn't spread, you're in trouble."
Mason met Godin in New York at the newly opened Uniqlo, a sleek 36,000-square-foot store with towering stacks of impeccably folded cashmere sweaters at discount prices. Often described as the gap of Japan, Uniqlo is now trying to invade America. Part of the story Uniqlo wants to spread, Godin says, is the shopping experience itself.
"So when I walk into this store here," Godin said, "if everything was just piled on a table, all rough and tumble, I wouldn't think it was worth as much. But because the cashmere is beautifully stacked, and because there's helpful people and the lighting is right and the music is right, I feel like, oh, I'm getting a souvenir of the store when I'm pay my $25.00 for a sweater. I'm not just buying some wool."
After all, there are plenty of places you can buy a cheap sweater.
"So what you're selling now is a show," Godin said. "What you're selling is a feeling. What I call a free prize — the way that iPod feels. You already have an iPod. You need a new iPod because this iPod makes you feel different. That's what we sell now for a living. We sell feelings. We don't sell stuff."