Fomenting the Friday Fatale

There's an elite corps of trained warriors who dwell among us.

They research meticulously. They plan methodically. They endure freezing temperatures for a day or more in acquiring their targets. And their weapons of choice are easily concealed plastic cards capable of slicing hundreds of dollars off a retail price with a single swipe.

The code name of their mission is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving in which retailers bust open their doors to usher in the holiday buying season.

The key to attracting these elite consumers -- and millions more who are a bit more relaxed about their bargain-hunting -- will be hitting the right price points on the right items.

Sure, retailers drop prices in order to get people in the store, but the real competition is in creating enough buzz to keep people there and buy the accessories and other gifts with healthier profit margins.

As has been the trend for the last few years, we're likely to see the promotions fall into three main classifications:

Big Ticket and High Demand

These are the headline-grabbers.

Retailers will hope to drive fat revenues off thin displays this year, or at least consumer excitement around them.

The biggest buzz is around flat-panel televisions, a category that NPD has seen rise 118 percent year-to-date, and PCs, especially notebook computers, which have grown 34 percent year-to-date.

Web sites are reporting that retailers plan to offer 42-inch HD plasma televisions for less than $1,000 and 32-inch HD LCD televisions for less than $600.

At that price, LCDs will be very competitive with everyday pricing for HD tube televisions of the same size, signifying another nail in the very large coffin of the tube TV.

Notebooks, which are often promoted for less than $400 throughout the year, should see door-buster pricing of $299 or less -- one retailer will offer a $99 notebook PC with the catch of a Vonage subscription.

But PCs will face a tough road before January when Microsoft releases its long-awaited Windows Vista operating system upgrade.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at The NPD Group

Medium Ticket and Moderate Demand

Imaging products tend to be featured prominently in this category.

While digital-camera penetration has become very high in the United States, many consumers would welcome a chance to upgrade to a model with more megapixels or a sleeker form factor.

This is also true of camcorders, where consumers might want to upgrade to a digital format that takes advantage of DVDs.

According to NPD, such camcorders now account for 91 percent of the market.

Lower Demand

Some of these items appeal to the shopper whose logic goes something like, "You know, I already have seven DVD players -- and only three televisions -- but what if five of them break?" or the perennial late adopter.

Staples of the last few years have included DVD players and recorders, low-capacity MP3 players and flash drives that make for good unexpected solid-state stocking stuffers, and lots of storage and networking gear that will soon be surpassed by products with more capacity.

Other PC peripherals such as monitors and printers also often don't see that big of a bump in the holiday rush.

There has also been a surprise category or two in the last few years.

Last holiday season, Global Positioning System units and satellite radio sales were snapped up by subscribers, although the latter may have been driven by the buzz around Howard Stern leaving for Sirius.

NPD expects that GPS will again be a popular category. However, one new category to watch will be digital picture frames, increasingly offered at a wide array of retailers at less than $150.

Perhaps the Internet -- which has extended anticipation of these deals to weeks before Black Friday -- will eventually give rise to services that allow teams of coordinated shoppers to manage triage for the best deals at stores miles apart.

If not, you can always hold out hope for cloning. The inconvenience of competing with yourself for the rest of the year is really a small price to pay for a good deal on a plasma TV.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at The NPD Group