November 26, 2004

Retailers Offer Expanded Hours, More Deals

Retailers opened their doors before the sun rose Friday, the official start of the holiday shopping season, tempting early risers with specials on a variety of items including flat-screen TVs and toys.

Retailers are keeping their fingers crossed that, in an improving though still challenging economy, the crowds will keep coming throughout the next month.

By the time Wal-Mart's store in a Buffalo, N.Y. suburb of Hamburg opened its doors at 6 a.m., 1,000 people had formed a lined that spanned the entire store front, despite temperatures of 31 degrees.

"It's our tradition," said Ruth Pompeo, of Lackawanna, N.Y, who was up at 3 a.m. and in line by 4:30 a.m. with her 11-year-old niece Shelby Strack. "I don't know what I'm here to grab, actually, " she said. "Whatever I can."

Many of the early bird specials on hot items were in short supply, however. At another Wal-Mart store in Alpharetta, Ga., just north of Atlanta, a supply of discounted Video Now personal video players sold out in just 12 minutes.

That's why many shoppers mapped out a strategy to get the most coveted bargains.

"The deals are better this early in the morning," said Karen Dawkins, from Cayce, S.C., who was at a Toys R Us store in Columbia, S.C. and was almost done with her buying shortly after 6 a.m. "I have my mother at Circuit City and my sister at Target...so we have people stationed at other stores."

She added, "We all got together after Thanksgiving dinner and got the ads and made a list."

Debbie Redmon of Thayer, Mo., set her alarm for 3:20 a.m. but woke up at 3 a.m., ready to take advantage of bargain shopping in Little Rock, Ark.

"I guess the adrenaline was flowing," she said.

She and daughter-in-law Kerri Littleton of Benton, Ark., hit the same places in Little Rock every year: BestBuy, then Kohl's, then Staples, then Sports Authority. They had their eyes on BestBuy's Sony PlayStation2 for $149.99 and an MP3 player marked down from $129.99 to $29.99.

"We'll finish up all our shopping today," Redmon said. "But we're usually at some place even after it gets dark. Then I collapse tomorrow."

Crystal Rhoades of Wake Forest, N.C., stood in front of Hudson Belk department store at Triangle Town Center in Raleigh, N.C. with Darlene Hackney of Creedmoor in temperatures hovering around 33 degrees.

Rhoades says it's her second or third time taking advantage of the early opening for the after-Thanksgiving sales. The day after Thanksgiving is known as "Black Friday" in the retailing business because the surge of shoppers has been known to push stores into profitability for the year.

"Since I had to go to work today, I figured I'd come in here before I go to work," she added. "So I've got until 7 o'clock to find a deal. After that, I'm out of here. I've got to be at work by 8 o'clock."

Rhoades had a short list until she spoke to Hackney.

"Sears has a DVD player for $19.99, so that's what I came out here to get. But since she told me about the bracelet and the earrings, I'm going to get one of those, too," she said.

In Manchester, Conn., Claude Samson, lined up at 3 a.m. in front of Wal-Mart, three hours before the store opened. He filled two carts full of toys and cooking supplies.

"I think it's a little crazy and there's probably a simpler way of doing this, but at the same time, you are saving so much," he said. "When you are saving $30 or $40 on a gift, you're going to do what you have to do."

Sheila Buckman, a 44 year-old student from Boston, student, woke at 3:45 a.m. and braved subfreezing temperatures to make her way to the CambridgeSide Galleria in Cambridge, Mass.

Buckman, who said she was on a tighter budget this year than in the past, said she was enticed by good deals at KB Toys store, which opened at 5 a.m. After buying some Yu-Gi-Oh trading cards for her children, Buckman raced over to Sears to pick up one of the $10 gift cards being handed out to store's first 200 shoppers.

"I'm on a limited income so I can't go crazy," she Buckman, who used the gift card to purchase socks. "Hopefully, I'm going to get some bargains."

Things weren't going as well in the cold and rainy Bismarck, N.D., where only about 100 people were in line at Wal-Mart by 4:30 a.m., a half hour before opening, compared with several hundred last year.

"Last year, they broke down a door trying to get in," said Mary Lou Horning, a Wal-Mart employee who has been through a half-dozen Black Fridays. "It's wild. It's an amazing day."

"I think the weather has definitely an impact, but they'll be here," Horning said.

Many of the Wal-Mart shoppers said they wanted to by a 24-inch flat-screen Symphonic television, on sale for $139.92.

Many of the nation's retailers are not panicking - not just yet anyway, according to John Morris, an analyst at Harris Nesbitt. They're just trying to drive as much traffic earlier in the season, he said. In fact, discounting for the mall-based apparel retailers he follows is 5 percent below what it was a year ago.

Retailers' spirits have improved in recent weeks as falling fuel prices and job gains revived consumer spending momentum that slowed in the summer.

But many shoppers, particularly those with limited disposable income, are saying they will be cautious. Fuel prices remain high, and the job market is still volatile.

The Washington-based National Retail Federation projects that total sales, after restaurant and auto sales are excluded, will increase 4.5 percent for the November-December period. That would be less than the 5.1 percent gain of a year earlier.

Michael Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers, predicts a "pretty good Christmas," estimating that sales at stores opened at least a year for the November-December period will be up anywhere from 3 percent to 4 percent. That compares to a 4 percent rise a year ago.

Retailers' efforts last year to get shoppers to buy early paid off.

During the 2003 holiday shopping season, the busiest day was the Friday after Thanksgiving, instead of the last Saturday before Christmas, which was the second busiest day, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. That reversed a trend seen over the last ten years, when the busiest day was the Saturday before Christmas, according to Mike Niemira, chief economist at the industry group.


AP bureaus in Buffalo, N.Y., Bismarck, N.D., Raleigh, N.C., Atlanta, Little Rock, Ark., Boston, and Hartford, Conn., contributed to this report.