Black Friday is looming and retailers are kicking promotions into high gear, stuffing consumers’ mailboxes with slick flyers, brochures and coupons to lure them into stores. The Friday after Thanksgiving, typically the fifth biggest holiday shopping day, accounts for about 10% of total U.S. holiday sales when combined with figures for the Saturday and Sunday that follow. But according to Bear Stearns analyst Dana Telsey, Black Friday tends to be more of a "recreational" day, with the majority of people window-shopping and mall-walking rather than purchasing goods.

A store’s performance on Black Friday can be a telling indicator of its overall holiday/fourth quarter performance. And retailers are more determined than ever to make this weekend count because for the first time in six years, the total holiday spending season (the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas day) has shortened. Holiday season 2002 is six whole days shorter than the same period for 2001 (26 days vs. 32 days in 2001), creating a more condensed buying period and forcing retailers to get the word out earlier.

One example is Gap Inc.’s 37-page, vibrantly colored mailer that arrived this week, including a "mystery holiday card" that may contain some money to spend at Gap stores. The catch — consumers have to bring the card into a store to find out. The mailer should at the very least spark renewed interest in Gap, according to Merrill Lynch vice president Mark Friedman.

Analysts are bullish on Gap’s appeal this Black Friday, but what other specialty apparel stores will see high traffic counts and sales? "We covertly snapped 300 pictures of 50 stores in malls and street locations in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Jersey and metro New York City," said UBS Warburg softline retail analyst Richard Jaffe in a Black Friday-focused conference call yesterday.

"Based on our store visits, we believe that American Eagle Outfitters, Gap, Urban Outfitters, Too Inc. and Pacific Sunwear are especially well-positioned for Black Friday, while Wet Seal, Charlotte Russe and Charming Shoppes will have some difficulties. Off-price retailers TJX Cos. and Ross Stores will likely continue to benefit from interest from the value conscious consumer." UBS Warburg provides financial services for retailers American Eagle, Charlotte Russe, Pacific Sunwear, Charming Shoppes, Wet Seal and Ross Stores.