`Black Friday' glows green

Retailers' specials welcome the brave and their money


Lured by early-bird specials and undeterred by frigid weather and jostling crowds, shoppers across the country hit the malls and department stores before dawn yesterday to launch what retailers hope will be a surprisingly robust shopping season.

Although retailers face a challenging economy, early reports yesterday indicated a strong first day for the official shopping season. Millions of shoppers across the country snapped up door-buster bargains on the day that is known as "Black Friday" because it traditionally thrust stores into the profitable "black."

Several major retailers, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc.; Sears, Roebuck and Co.; and Macy's, a division of Federated Department Stores Inc., estimated they drew bigger crowds on the official start of the holiday season than a year ago. A spokeswoman at Target Corp. said traffic was at least as heavy as last year.

Merchants rolled out tricks to draw shoppers in, from free gift cards to cut-rate deals on computers and TVs.

"This will go down as one of the earliest and most promotional Black Fridays in history," said Tracy Mullin, president and chief executive officer of the National Retail Federation. "Many stores opened earlier than ever before, and retailers offered unbelievable sales and discounts to get people shopping."

More sales are generally tallied during the weekend before Christmas, but Black Friday has evolved into a cultural spectacle of commercialism.

Unfazed by packed parking lots, long lines and large crowds, shoppers such as Dawn Haigler in Howard County reveled in the craziness. An avid Black Friday shopper, Haigler, along with her husband, father and daughter, were outside the Wal-Mart in Ellicott City by 3:30 a.m.

They were among hundreds of people in a line that stretched across the building. At one point, the crowd got rowdy when the store failed to open promptly at the advertised time of 5 a.m., with some irritated and cold customers trying to pry open the entrance.

When the store opened 15 minutes later, shoppers quickly snapped up the best early specials. A Hewlett-Packard notebook computer for $398 sold out in minutes.

By 6 a.m., Haigler and her daughter, Heather Myers of Baltimore, were towing two shopping carts loaded with small appliances, electronics and toys. At other end of the store, Haigler's husband, Thomas, and father, Charles Leake, each had full shopping carts.

The family employed the game plan they devised the previous night. They scoured the circulars for the best deals, picked out the most-desired items and then each hit different sections of the store.

"We go to my dad's house for dinner and we decide on who goes to which department," Haigler said. "It's a tradition and it's fun. Usually every year, we get everything we want. We divide and conquer."

About 130 million Americans are expected to go shopping this weekend, according to the National Retail Federation. Last year, shoppers spent $22.8 billion during the initial holiday weekend.

The Washington-based trade group estimates sales will increase by 6 percent to nearly $440 billion this holiday season, compared with last year.

Staples Inc., the office supply chain, reported its strongest start ever for a holiday season. It offered "early bird" specials, including a Hewlett-Packard digital camera for $77.87 and an Acer Aspire notebook computer for $449.94. For the first time, Macy's was giving away a total of $1 million in gift cards to early shoppers. Wal-Mart opened at 5 a.m., an hour earlier than last year, and reported 2 million shoppers in the first two hours yesterday. Meanwhile, Sears gave out $10 gift cards to the first 200 customers at its stores.

Veteran Black Friday shoppers who make annual treks to the malls greet the madness with precision.

Take Tanya Spruill, 33, of Pikesville, and April Larry, 33, of Baltimore, who have shopped together on Black Friday for the past three years.

This year, instead of waiting for the circulars Thanksgiving Day, they found a sneak-preview of discounts on www.bf2005.com, one of several Web sites that published circulars for such stores as Wal-Mart and Target weeks earlier. By 5 a.m. yesterday, they were at the Target store in Ellicott City, picking up several 15-inch, flat-panel LCD televisions for $188, under-the-counter CD players for $38.88 and Kodak digital cameras for $89.88.

"We got everything we wanted, a flat-screen TV for Mom and one for myself," Larry said.

Not even close to finishing, the two women hit The Mall in Columbia, dropping by J.C. Penney to pick up bedding at 40 percent off. For the first time, their children joined them on their shopping excursion this year.

"It was fun seeing the children experiencing this. More hands, more help," Spruill said. "Black Friday is a nice workout, too. You put on sweats, comfortable shoes and you keep on moving."

At the J.C. Penney in Columbia, 250 employees - double the staff on a normal shopping day - were on hand to help customers, store manager Ken Hornbostel said. About 300 shoppers were at the store when it opened at 5 a.m., he said. Even though every cash register was open, many had lines 18 to 20 people long.

Rajbabu Pakala, 48, of Ellicott City, was shopping at Penney's by himself using a list his wife made for him. Usually, he and his wife work the day after Thanksgiving, but this year he had the day off.

Things were going smoothly except when he was unsure of what color sweaters to get, so he called his wife, Rajashree, at work. Then there was the line that every experienced Black Friday shopper knows all too well.

"I stood on line longer than it took me to select the clothes," he said. "Selection took 30 to 45 minutes. I stood on line for an hour 15 minutes."


The Associated Press and Bloomberg News contributed to this article.

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