Shoppers hit the stores to find holiday bargains

. . . Early risers seek to nab specials on retailers’ big day

It was cold, it was dark and in some places it was foggy. None of that would stop millions of bargain-seekers from climbing into their cars for a pre-dawn raid on their local malls, electronics retailers and discounters for the official start to the holiday season.

“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 Friday as she loaded her SUV with two cartloads of items from a Target store in Madison Heights, Mich.

The aggressive tactics used to lure shoppers out before sunrise on Black Friday apparently worked. Based on early reports, the expanded hours, increased discounting and free money as gift cards drove hordes of shoppers to stores to buy flat-screen TVs, computers and toys.

“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, Conn. for the 5 a.m. opening after seeing a TV commercial late Thursday touting $500 off on the $1,500 price tag for a 42-inch LCD TV made by Westinghouse.

Clearly, Black Friday is “becoming the biggest sport,” said Marshal Cohen, chief analyst at NPD Group Inc., observing that shoppers this year bought fewer, but pricier items than a year ago.

A growing number of stores such as KB Toys opened at midnight. Some, like CompUSA Inc. and BJ’s Wholesale Club opened on Thanksgiving Day for the first time.

Overall, the biggest draws were consumer electronics, particularly flat-screen TVs, laptop computers and digital cameras. Toys fared well too. In addition to the hard-to-find Fisher-Price TMX Elmo, shoppers snapped up other items like anything Dora, robot toys, Fisher-Price’s Kids Tough Digital Camera and Jakks-Pacific FlyWheel XPV, according to toy merchants.

But clothing, mirroring a trend in recent years, took a back seat, Cohen said: “Apparel will be the late bloomer making mall-based apparel stores a little nervous.”

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which promised the most aggressive pricing strategy ever, set the tone by plying shoppers with one-time offers such as a $988 Viore 42-inch plasma TV set. The discounter declined to comment Friday about business; it’s slated to announce estimated sales results for November on Saturday.

Sears Holdings Corp.’s Sears Roebuck and Co. stores, which offered $10 reward cards to the first 200 people showing up for the 5 a.m. opening, drew increased traffic at many locations, spokeswoman Gail Lavielle said.

Toys “R” Us and KB Toys Inc. also reported increased traffic from a year ago. Karen McDonald, a spokeswoman at Taubman Centers Inc., which operates or owns 23 malls in 11 states, said a handful of malls surveyed on Friday reported traffic and sales gains over last year. “The line was literally wrapped around the building. I haven’t seen that in years,” said Terry Lundgren, chairman and CEO of Federated Department Stores Inc., who surveyed the crowds at the 6 a.m. opening of the flagship Macy’s in New York as the chain began its first holiday season as a national brand. The hottest draws were discounted cashmere, $50 luggage sets and $100 one-carat diamond necklaces, Lundgren said.

The Best Buy store in West Paterson, N.J., had almost 2,000 people waiting for Friday’s 5 a.m. opening — nearly 24 hours after they started lining up.

“They had turkey sandwiches,” said Chuck O’Donnell, a district service manager for Best Buy, which sold out of all the early morning specials advertised in its circular, including the 42-inch Westinghouse TVs and $80 digital cameras.

In fact, many of those who arrived at stores early Friday came away disappointed. They were plenty of customers like Brian Clark, 27, who left empty-handed from the West Hartford Best Buy after the televisions and computers he’d eyed as Christmas gifts were snatched by even earlier shoppers.

Alarmed by a recent shooting of a customer waiting outside a Connecticut Wal-Mart for the highly sought Sony’s PlayStation 3 game console, 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.”’

At the Glendale Galleria in suburban Los Angeles, The Gap had been set to open at 5 a.m. but unlocked the doors 15 minutes early to accommodate a long line of shoppers, said Fran Vartanian, district manager of the chain. Sales were brisk, with all prices reduced by 30 percent until noon — a first-time promotion for the store. Sweatshirts with hoods were big sellers at about $35 after the discount.

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 weeks ahead, however: What consumers see that day influences where they will shop for the rest of the season.

This year, analysts expect robust holiday sales gains for the retail industry, though the growth 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.