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."
But enticing us to buy is increasingly difficult. The old forms of advertising don't work as well as they used to — in part because there's so much of it, in part because we've learned to ignore it.
"Consumers don't want to be sold to. They find it insulting. What they want is to be touched," Kevin Roberts, who heads the advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi, said. "What's happened now is the consumers are saying, 'Look, I know that dandruff shampoos get rid of dandruff; so what is it that's different?' So the consumer says, 'The thing that's different is empathy. Do you understand me? Do you love me? Can you emotionally connect with me?'"
So companies are now trying to tap into their customers' emotions. For example, a Pampers ad which features images of sleeping babies to the sounds of "Silent Night" was a dud initially, but now it is extremely successful.
"And it failed every piece of research," Roberts said. "Absolutely the lowest scoring commercial ever shot. And you only have to ask one question when you show someone a spot: Do you want to see it again? And everybody who sees this spot wants to see it again. So all the norms were ignored. It went on to become the most viewed Pampers spot in the history of Procter & Gamble."
For a store, the window itself is an advertisement.
"Recognize that your store doesn't start at that lease line. It starts out here," retail consultant Paco Underhill, said.
Underhill is helping owner Yaron Koppel, whose shoe store "Te Casan" opened this week in New York. Underhill, who calls himself a retail anthropologist, is the author of "Why We Buy: The Science Of Shopping."
"In the world of clothing, so many sales get lost in the dressing room, because no one's thought about the romance process," he told Koppel. "Same thing is true in shoe stores. You build romance, you close the deal."
Underhill likes this store. He said he thinks it "is a really interesting retail experiment, because the people doing this store are trying to blow up the high end women's shoe category."
They've set up curtained booths, where you can try on shoes in privacy or with your friends. And though the prices are high, every shoe sold in the store is a limited edition.
"And you know that there are only certain number of people walking the face of this earth that are going to have this shoe, and that is a great story," Underhill said. "It makes it significant."
These days, says Godin, that's the only way for a retailer to survive.
"Find an extreme. Extremely cheap. Extremely convenient. Extremely expensive. Extremely well made. Extremely something," he said. "When you go to the edge, you have a better chance of being remarkable, of having a story that's worth telling. If you say 'We have slightly better jewelry,' 'We have slightly less expensive shoes,' that's not a story. That's invisible. You don't exist."
Retailers are learning they have to understand we consumers better or else the parade will pass them by.