Buyers rule

'Black Friday' brings out crowds of shoppers demanding bargains

November 29, 2008|By Hanah Cho h | Hanah Cho h,

Faced with rising food and other costs, plummeting retirement assets and fears about job security, shoppers said they tempered their spending at Baltimore-area shopping malls and other retail spots yesterday while marking the traditional kickoff to the holiday buying season.

Familiar "Black Friday" scenes of die-hard shoppers camped out before dawn for bargains on electronics, long lines at cash registers and packed parking lots were seen throughout the day. But many shoppers said they plan to spend less, wait for prices to drop even more and purchase gifts for a smaller number of friends and family.

"The economy has been terrible. Everyone is trying to be more careful with money," said Tina Ogiefo, 45, who was looking at women's clothes at Macy's in The Mall in Columbia. "This is not the time to spend, spend and spend. I used to buy gifts for everyone, but I'm definitely cutting back."

Ogiefo, a social worker from Laurel, said she is limiting her gift-buying this holiday season to a small list: Her kids, nephews and nieces.

Locally, crowds appeared subdued at shopping malls as consumers browsed more and opened their wallets with more caution. But at least one retailer said sales were running ahead of last year.

Across the country, preliminary reports from retailers and mall operators said that crowds seemed at least as large as last year although analysts doubt consumers were spending more, given economic worries and deeply discounted merchandise. Most merchants acknowledge that consumers have been changing their buying habits and visiting malls with less frequency during the past several weeks.

One early-morning frenzy in New York turned fatal when a Wal-Mart worker at a Long Island store died after being trampled by a throng of unruly shoppers shortly after the store opened yesterday, said Nassau County, N.Y., police. Wal-Mart called the incident a "tragic situation" and said the employee came from a temporary agency and was doing maintenance work at the store.

Retailers are watching this weekend closely as they gauge expectations for the rest of the shopping season amid a gloomy economy and financially strapped consumers. Some experts and economists are predicting the worst season in decades. The National Retail Federation is predicting the slowest holiday sales growth since 2002.

"This is the slowest I've seen it on Black Friday," said John Battista of Joppa, who was at Target in Bel Air buying Christmas gifts for his three kids, ages 7, 8 and 12. "I'm really surprised."

The day after Thanksgiving earned the nickname "Black Friday" because it is the day that most merchants' ledgers for the year go from red to black.

The NRF said up to 128 million people will shop this weekend, fewer than the 135 million consumers last year. But another survey, commissioned by the International Council of Shopping Centers and Goldman Sachs, found that 45 percent of consumers planned to shop yesterday or during this weekend, up from 36 percent last year.

Luisa Palting, 40, ventured out to shop for her first Black Friday in hopes of finding bargains.

"We're only buying stuff on sale and limiting the number of gifts under the tree," said Palting, who was taking a breather on a bench at the Columbia mall with her 12-year-old son, C.J.; 13-year-old daughter, Alex; and Alex's friend, Audrey Zahlis, 14.

"We're not buying for extra people," the Columbia woman said, noting that the family is limiting holiday presents to her kids this year.

At Kohl's in Timonium, about 150 people filed into the store at 4 a.m. yesterday.

Maryann Moro of Parkville, who was shopping there with her adult son and daughter, said this year she was "just trying to be a little more thrifty."

Faced with dire economic conditions and double-digit sales declines in recent months, many retailers began the deep discounting days or weeks before yesterday. Wal-Mart, for instance, slashed toy prices well before Halloween; Target said it would match Wal-Mart prices on identical items in local markets.

Retailers also pulled out all the stops yesterday to entice shoppers with more specials and promotions.

General Growth Properties, which owns Towson Town Center, White Marsh Mall and The Mall in Columbia, upped the giveaways this year to include goodies such as flat-screen TVs and laptops.

At Towson Town Center, even stores in the new luxury wing, such as Burberry, tried to lure shoppers with sale signs - albeit smaller, discreet ones tucked in the corner of the store's display.

Inside, prices on silk scarves were slashed from $315 to $239 and a shimmery black-and-silver woman's coat once marked at $1,495 was selling for $899.

Macy's promoted 20 percent off outerwear and sweaters as well as free samples of a new energy drink, while JC Penney offered almost 400 early-bird specials. Both stores saw long lines at cash registers and crowds in the housewares and women's apparel departments.

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