U.S. shoppers crowd malls all night long

Published 10:07 am Friday, November 26, 2010

(AP) Bargain shoppers, braving rain or frigid weather, crowded the nation’s stores and malls in the wee hours of the night to get their hands on deals from TVs to toys on Black Friday.

In a bid to grab shoppers earlier on the traditional start to the holiday shopping season, a number of stores including Old Navy, Toys R Us and Sears opened on Thursday’s Thanksgiving holiday. Toys R Us was counting on getting an extra boost by opening 24 hours straight, starting at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving.

Patricia Lopez, 32, a receptionist from Queens, N.Y., was in line at Toys R Us in New York’s Times Square Thursday night. The earlier hours were an enticement.

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“I thought, good, we’ll come here and I won’t have to go tomorrow.” But she still planned to get up at 6 to hit more sales. Lopez said she feels better about her finances.

“The economy got people a little scared so they started to save,” she said. “I think I feel a little better this year than last year. I had just started with my job but now I’m more advanced. I feel a little better now.”

Diehards started lining up at the Target department store on Chicago’s North side at 10 p.m. Thursday, and by the time doors opened at 4, the line was almost 600 people deep.

In an encouraging sign for retailers, lots of people said they were buying gifts for themselves.

“I would not go out in the cold for family,” joked Kat Reyngold, 35, who wanted a 40-inch Westinghouse TV on sale for $299.

Bad weather, however, could put a damper on sales. Rain was falling or threatening much of the East Coast, and early morning temperatures were in the teens and 20s throughout the Midwest and mountain states, according to the National Weather Service.

The fierce battle for shoppers’ wallets promises savings for those willing and able to buy amid an economy that’s still worrying many.

The good news is that retailers are heading into the season with some momentum after a solid start to November. Shoppers who can afford it are buying more nonessentials, like jewelry and luxury goods. That’s helping to lift their spirits about the holiday season, which is expected to generate revenue gains modestly higher than a year ago.

Still, nearly 15 million are unemployed, and concerns about job security cloud consumer confidence. Spending may be picking up but has not returned to pre-recession levels.

So, retailers are pushing deals on basics as well as offering discounts on more deluxe items, from bigger flat-panel TVs to more elaborate play sets.

“It’s a dogfight between retail companies,” said Chris Donnelly, a senior executive in consulting group Accenture’s retail practice. “This year is the first time that there’s a little more money in the marketplace so they’re being more aggressive about getting the last dollar. At the end of the day, they’re going to outweigh people who are pulling back.”

Many stores pushed more exclusive deals online on Thursday in a bid to rope in shoppers before Black Friday. It apparently worked. According to IBM’s Coremetrics, online sales soared 33 percent on the holiday compared with Thanksgiving 2009.

Consumers began shopping earlier in the day on Thursday compared with a year earlier. And the average order was $182.74, up from $159.81 on last year’s Thanksgiving Day.

The Kohl’s department store chain, which planned to open at 3 a.m. Friday, one hour earlier than a year ago, is promoting diamond bracelets and diamonds heart pendants for $99 each, down from $500 or $575. The store is also offering 50 percent off all toys.

Thanksgiving weekend is huge for retailers. In recent years, so-called Black Friday has been the busiest shopping day of the year, according to data from research firm ShopperTrak. But it doesn’t necessarily provide a complete forecast of holiday sales. In fact, shoppers seem to be procrastinating more every year, so the fate of the holiday season is increasingly down to the last few days before Christmas.

Retailers do study buying patterns for the weekend to discern shoppers’ mindset. This year, that means taking the measure on their willingness to spend just a little bit more.

Last year, the Thanksgiving shopping weekend accounted for 12.3 percent of overall holiday revenue, according to ShopperTrak. Black Friday made up about half of that.

Shoppers swarmed Washington Square, a mall in Tigard, Oregon, that opened at midnight for the first time.

Jennifer Mishler and her mother, Lynn Bieberdorf, lined up at the mall’s J.C. Penney at Washington Square mall.

Bieberdorf said she also had finished most of her holiday shopping, picking up gifts for her grandchildren in October and November. Tonight they were looking for some stocking stuffers and other small items.

“Other than that, it’s to enjoy the madness,” Mishler said.