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Black Friday begins

Leah Bryant, of Ironton, left the Ashland Town Center this morning at a time when some of her friends and neighbors were just getting out of bed: 5:45 a.m. What brought Bryant out so early?

“The sales,” she replied. On Black Friday, the first day of the 2009 Christmas shopping season, Bryant got a jump start on clothes and toys she will put under the Christmas tree.

“I saved $240 just from J.C. Penney,” she said. “I’m excited.

As Bryant was leaving J.C. Penney, Matt Ward and Nazrani Karim, of Lexington, Ky., were going in, intent on finding their own bargains.

Both needed external hard drives for their computers and while they had wanted a 320 gigabyte, they instead found a 1 terabyte hard drive at the Ashland, Ky., Walmart.

Although they paid $35 more for it, they came away satisfied with the sale but perhaps amused by the experience.

“There were people fighting over $2 towels,” Karim said. “It was crazy. And they were basically all gone and people were trying to dig into boxes.”

Bryant gets up ever year for the Black Friday sales but for Ward and Karim, this was their first sojourn into the early morning mayhem.

“I came last year at midday and it wasn’t bad,” Ward said. “It was interesting (this year) to see people fighting over stuff. That’s a terrible thing to say but it was interesting to watch.”

At the Walmart in Burlington, Tammy Walls, of Ironton, was there before 6 a.m. to find a bargain on TVs.

“I got a good buy,” she said. “It’s a good time to go shopping without the rest of the family, all by myself.”

While Walls left her family sleeping, South Point sisters Katrina Harrison and Lisa White came together for their Black Friday pilgrimage.

“The sales weren’t as good as last year,” White said. But Harrison said she found the sales worth getting up early.

“We come every year,” she said.

The nation’s retailers have expanded their hours and offered deep discounts on everything from toys to TVs in hopes of getting consumers, many of whom are worried about high unemployment and tight credit, to open their wallets.

A number of stores, including Walmart and many Old Navy locations, opened on Thanksgiving, hoping to make the most of the extra hours. Toys R Us opened most of its stores just after midnight Friday.

After suffering the worst sales decline in several decades last holiday season, the good news is that the retail industry is heading into the Christmas selling period armed with lean inventories and more practical goods on their shelves that reflect shoppers’ new psyche.

Still, with unemployment at 10.2 percent, many analysts expect that total holiday sales will be at best about even from a year ago.

Optimism rose in early fall as shoppers spent a little more, but stores say they’ve seen a sales slowdown since Halloween, putting merchants more on edge.

The promotional blitz typical for the traditional start of the holiday shopping season has high stakes for retailers who’ve suffered through a year of sales declines.

It’s also important for the broader economy, which could use a kickstart from consumer spending.

Black Friday gets its name because it traditionally was the day when huge crowds would push stores into “the black,” or profitability.

But the weekend doesn’t provide a forecast for the rest of the season, which accounts for as much as 40 percent of annual sales and profits for many stores.

Still, retailers closely study buying patterns for the Thanksgiving weekend to gauge shoppers’ mindset — what kinds of items they’re buying, what deals are luring them.

Stores need to perform well for the traditional start because chances are slim they’ll be able to make up for lost sales for the rest of the season.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)