Holiday shopping starts with a roar

Maryland retailers pleased with strong early sales

November 25, 2006|By Andrea K. Walker and Hanah Cho | Andrea K. Walker and Hanah Cho,Sun reporters

The holiday shopping season kicked off in typical frenzied fashion yesterday with pre-dawn bargains, midnight store openings, clogged Internet sites and long lines, fueling a cultural tradition that helps to set the tone for how retailers finish out the year.

Early reports by retail executives predicted strong sales yesterday. And the industry hoped that showing would continue throughout the weekend, when 137 million people are expected to visit stores.

Known as Black Friday because it often was when retailers posted their first profits of the year, the day after Thanksgiving has become a marketing bonanza, with consumers competing for steep discounts on limited items, traffic jams and marathon shopping excursions. It also officially starts the holiday shopping season, which accounts for 20 to 40 percent of retailers' sales.

Though always an important day for retailers, it often loses out to the Saturday before Christmas as the busiest shopping day of the year. That's because many consumers like to wait until retailers slash prices to get rid of merchandise.

Retail executives with J.C. Penney, Staples, Macy's and others said early sales results showed a big day for them - some predicted that it would be the busiest day of the year.

Some retailers, such as KB Toys, extended the bargains all day instead of limiting them to certain early-morning hours. The result was a constant stream of traffic.

"We're seeing a steady pace throughout the day versus the craziness that some other retailers see," said Ernie Speranza, KB chief marketing officer. "We think we'll be over last year by the time the weekend finishes."

The parking lot at The Mall in Columbia, which opened at 6 a.m., was full by midmorning. There was barely a seat in the food court. There was little room to walk past the shoppers loaded down with boxes and bags.

The Prime Outlets mall at Hagerstown experimented with a midnight opening for the first time this year and got a much better response than anticipated. Traffic backed up for several miles at other Prime Outlets throughout the country. The chain opened 12 centers at midnight, including its shopping mall in Queenstown, on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

About 30,000 cars had flooded the Hagerstown parking lot by 3 a.m. - double the count expected, said spokeswoman Rachia Green:

"The response that we got far exceeded our expectations."

Hundreds of customers lined up outside Circuit City on Pulaski Highway hours before its 5 a.m. opening, hoping for bargains on digital cameras, MP3 players and flat-screen televisions. Three police cars were on guard at the store, and a food and coffee truck served the sleep-deprived and caffeine-seeking customers.

When the doors opened, people rushed into the store; some walked quickly while others ran. It took 11 minutes for all the customers to get inside.

The deals drew many die-hard shoppers who have years of practice in camping out overnight and strategizing to get the best bargains.

Karen DeSoto, 46, of Perry Hall, recruited two novices to join her for gift shopping at Circuit City. DeSoto and Katelyn Pugh, 19, of Essex, arrived at the store at 8:30 p.m. Thursday. Pugh's father, Mike, 49, joined them at 3:30 a.m. yesterday.

DeSoto said she revels in the craziness because of the deals.

"I have four sons who go to private school," she said. "You got to do what you got to do."

Those who thought they could avoid the lines and shop at home in their pajamas were confronted with a different kind of wait. The Web site for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. slowed for much of the day yesterday because so many people were shopping on the site. Amazon.com reported similar problems the day before, in part because of demand for its sale on Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox 360 video game machines.

In Annapolis, recent violence at a local mall did not seem to deter bargain-seekers.

Thousands of customers shopped at Westfield Annapolis mall, where a fight among students last Saturday evening led to the shooting of three people, including an off-duty Secret Service agent.

Several shoppers said the incident had given them pause. But they hoped more security would be in force. And indeed county police teamed up with Westfield security inside the mall.

Lorena Finger, 46, of Lanham, said she had wavered about shopping there.

"But I'm always aware of my surroundings," said Finger, who brought her daughters to shop yesterday. "We don't want to be around where there's arguing. ... We'll just go in the other direction."

Sales on the Friday after Thanksgiving fell 0.9 percent last year to $8 billion, though it was still the busiest shopping day of 2005, according to ShopperTrak, a Chicago company that tracks industry statistics. The day was the second-busiest shopping day in 2004 and the busiest in 2003. This year, ShopperTrak predicts Black Friday will come in second, behind the Saturday before Christmas.

Total holiday sales are expected to increase 5 percent compared with last year to $457.4 billion, according to the retail federation.

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