It appears that the opening to this holiday shopping season, a critical one financially for merchants, has started well — at least according to most published accounts. Retailers here in the Brownwood area reported strong weekend sales in a story that published in yesterday’s Bulletin, and the reports coming in nationally also show strong spending patterns, both at brick and mortar stores and online Web sites.

“Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving, is usually thought to be the busiest shopping day of the year, and that so far has proved the case this year. Locally, part of the weekend drop off can be explained by the wet weather. Nationally, there were more shoppers out over the weekend this year compared to last year, but they spent less — and the initially reported three-day sales figures are down from last year.

In a change from recent trends, Black Monday — the online shoppers’ version of Black Friday — actually began early, with online shoppers spending 22 percent more last Friday than in 2006. The top products purchased online? Video games and consoles — both popular gifts to be sure, but hardly what many would consider big-ticket items like the HDTV big screen televisions that helped drive last year’s holiday sales. That statistic would seem to bear out what traditional retailers found over last weekend as well — that there may be more shoppers, but they seem content to spend less money.

These changes in consumer spending — online versus traditional store, fewer large items instead of several smaller items, for example — are just some of the challenges retailers face as they try to make the most of this important time of the year. Each year, it seems, brings a different spending pattern, a new “must-have” item and competitors who constantly change pricing and discounting ideas. That’s a lot of uncertainty for businesses that generally make or miss their year based on the business they will do over the four to five weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

This year around Texas, many major retailers promoted that their stores would open at 4 a.m. (and they reported brisk business during that hour). One Dallas-area mall remained open overnight, with entertainment and refreshments for the shoppers, while the stores were closed and opened sometime after midnight. Another shopping center was reported to have stayed open around the clock after Thanksgiving, all in an effort to attract more shoppers. Trying to staff a shop during overnight, holiday hours like that can make it difficult for mom-and-pop businesses to compete and remain a shopper’s first choice.

Another strategy some larger retailers have been using the past several years is to offer price-leading specials during only certain times or only on their Web sites. The key to this type of strategy is having the right kind of inventory — this year’s hot item — and the right amount of it.

Again, this is a difficult strategy for smaller retailers to copy.

But smaller retailers, and those in more rural areas like Brown County, can and do find ways to be successful beyond their promises of better service.

By working as groups to stage events, such as sidewalk sales and after-hours open houses, mom-and-pop stores can create excitement and enthusiasm within their own community. Same thing for attaching a sale or extended hours to an event that another group is going to stage in your area. By forming partnerships, individual merchants are able to generate the same kind of buzz metropolitan malls that stay open all night create. By jointly highlighting the selections available at a variety of stores, they can, in effect, build an inventory to match any mega-store.

Coordination and communication are both keys to this type of successful campaign, though. A business owner with an open mind who embraces new ideas and pushes the envelope is required. By coupling the excitement created by big, and new, events with the outstanding customer service that smaller businesses are known for, retailers across the nation can feel the positive economic effects of a busy Black Friday and successful holiday shopping season.

Bill Crist is associate publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Wednesday. He may be reached by e-mail at bill.crist@brownwoodbulletin.com.