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Across the nation, they came, they saw, they bought

Saturday, November 25, 2006

(Photo)
Ruben Macias rested in a shopping cart as he and others waited for the opening of the Super Target Store in El Paso, Texas, on Friday. Based on early reports, expanded hours, increased discounting and free money as gift cards drove hordes of shoppers to stores to buy flat-screen TVs, computers and toys.
(VICTOR CALZADA ~ El Paso Times)
Dense fog didn't stop shoppers in Michigan from climbing into their minivans and sport utility vehicles and heading to stores and malls in search of bargains. No way -- not on the day when thousands of other deal-seekers around the nation stormed electronics retailers and discounters in the pre-dawn chill, even as leftover turkey and stuffing cooled in refrigerators.

"Great deals. I'm shopping for everybody today. We hit Target. We're going to Meijer. We hit Sears. We started shopping at 5 a.m.," Joanne Dosant, a 36-year-old legal assistant from Windsor, Ontario, said as she loaded her SUV with two cartloads of items from a Target store in Madison Heights, Mich.

They came, they saw and they bought, lured by retailers that tempted them with expanded hours, generous discounts and free money in the form of gift cards. And neither a slowing economy or mobs of other shoppers would stop them.

"Large crowds drive me nuts, but this was my Christmas present to myself," said Mark Demers, 23, of Bristol, Conn., who had camped out overnight in front of the Best Buy store in West Hartford after seeing a TV commercial late Thursday touting a sale on the 42-inch plasma televisions.

Carting the TV to his car early Friday, he said the rest of his shopping would be done online.

A large number of stores and malls unlocked their doors at midnight to jump-start the season. CompUSA Inc. and BJ's Wholesale Club Inc. even opened on Thanksgiving for the first time.

Shoppers like Sean Humphreys headed straight from their turkey dinner to the malls to take advantage of midnight openings.

"I wanted to see if I could get anything early," said Humphreys, who was picking out clothing at a Ralph Lauren Polo store at 12:04 a.m. Friday at the Premium Outlet Center 25 miles north of Dallas.

And many shoppers embraced the official opening of the shopping season with such determination that they camped outside stores like Best Buy starting Thursday morning -- skipping a sit-down feast altogether.

The Best Buy store in West Patterson, N.J., had almost 2,000 people waiting for Friday's 5 a.m. opening, many of whom had lined up starting at 8 a.m. on Thursday.

"They had turkey sandwiches," said Chuck O'Donnell, a Best Buy district service manager, which did well with all the early morning specials advertised in its circular, including $1,000 42-inch, high-definition Westinghouse TVs and digital cameras for $80.

Even those who arrived at stores early Friday were not guaranteed success. Brian Clark, 27, left the West Hartford Best Buy empty-handed after the televisions and computers he'd eyed as Christmas gifts were snatched by earlier shoppers.

Carrying a Glock pistol

Alarmed by a recent shooting of a customer waiting outside a Connecticut Wal-Mart store for highly sought Sony's PlayStation 3, Clark had tucked his Glock pistol in a holster under his jacket and put extra ammunition in his pocket before heading out early Friday.

"You never know these days," he said, quickly adding that he has a state permit for a concealed weapon.

Gary Miller, a 45-year-old computer programmer in Cincinnati, was at Wal-Mart at 5 a.m. to hunt for a 20-inch LCD television he had seen advertised online.

"My wife sent me out for this one," he said, pointing to the set in his shopping cart. "But then I saw this one [a 20-inch conventional TV] for $85 and said, what the heck, I'll get that one, too."

For Reyna Cosme, a Mexican immigrant who headed to a Kmart in Doraville, Ga., outside of Atlanta, this was just the first of two full days of shopping she had planned.

"We're only shopping for the specials today; tomorrow, we come back for the others," said Cosme, who was filling up a cart with discounted toys and infants' fleece separates.

Plenty of shoppers had been preparing for Black Friday since mid-October, helped by a swath of new Web sites, like blackfriday.info and fatwallet.com, that post retailers' deals. (Black Friday got its name because many stores that would otherwise have been in the red traditionally ended up posting profits from the surge of holiday shopping.)

But Joe O'Connor of New York did research the old-fashioned way. He visited Macy's Herald Square store a few days before to scope things out.

As a result, it took him 41 minutes to get all his shopping done. He entered Macy's two minutes after the store opened at 6 a.m., and walked out with two shirts, a leather jacket and a pendant for his wife. Everything was on sale.

"It went very smooth," said the 62-year-old retired banker from Brooklyn. "I knew where everything was when I came in."

While Black Friday officially starts holiday shopping, generally it's no longer the busiest day of the season -- that honor now falls to the last Saturday before Christmas. Stores say Black Friday sets the tone for the overall season, however: What consumers see that day influences where they will shop for the rest of the season.

Expecting sales gains

Last year, total Black Friday sales dipped 0.9 percent to $8 billion from the year before, dampened by deep discounting, according to Shopper Trak RCT Corp., which tracks sales at more than 45,000 mall-based retail outlets. For the Thanksgiving weekend, total sales rose just 0.4 percent to $16.8 billion.

Even so, merchants ended up meeting their holiday sales projections, helped by a last-minute buying surge and post-Christmas shopping.

This year, analysts expect robust holiday sales gains for the retail industry, though the pace is expected to be slower than a year ago. The National Retail Federation projects a 5 percent gain in total holiday sales for the November-December period, less than the 6.1 percent in the year-ago period.

Meanwhile, the International Council of Shopping Centers estimates sales at stores open at least a year will rise 3 percent in the November-December period, less than last year's 3.6 percent.


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