Bargain shoppers, braving rain or frigid weather, crowded thenation's stores in the wee hours of the night to get their hands ondeals from TVs to toys on Black Friday.
Early signs pointed to a solid turnout for the traditional startto the holiday shopping season. In an encouraging sign forretailers and for the economy, more shoppers appeared to be buyingfor themselves than last year, when such indulgences were limited.Lengthened hours that pushed some store openings into Thanksgivingalso appeared to pay off.
Toys R Us, which drew in shoppers with 50 percent discounts onsuch toys as Buzz Lightyear and Barbies, was counting on getting anextra boost by opening 24 hours straight, starting at 10 p.m. onThanksgiving.
Toys R Us' 10 pm. opening at its flagship store in Times Squaredrew 1,500 shoppers, says CEO Jerry Storch.
"Where there are bargains, there are people looking to gobblethem up," said Marshal Cohen, chief analyst for market researchfirm NPD. Though people were mostly sticking to their lists, somewere picking up small extras. However, "the consumer is still verycalculated."
The earlier hours were an enticement to shoppers like JessicaMarshburn, who was armed with a Rockstar energy drink and anadvertising insert from a newspaper.
"It's easier this year. I just stayed up," said Marshburn, whowas at Washington Square mall in Tigard, Ore., for its midnightopening. Her game plan? Kohl's, Target, and Best Buy, as theyopened. She and her friend Cristy Doering were shopping forthemselves while keeping their eyes open for any deals that mightmake good gifts.
At the Walmart store in Columbia, Md., customers came in waves,with a big rush at midnight when toys and apparel went on sale andthen another surge beginning just before the cut-rate electronicswere hauled out at 5 a.m. Parking spots were in short supply andshopping carts were even more scarce, as people stalked the exitswaiting for discarded ones.
The chain averted the dangers of years past by keeping its doorsopen all night to head off potential stampedes. While there was asteady influx of shoppers, no one dashed through aisles or shoved.Instead, they lined up for tickets entitling them to heavilydiscounted TVs and computers and then camped out in cordoned-offaisles.
While the system kept things orderly, some shoppers didn'tappreciate it.
Kelly Miller was looking to do some marathon gift shopping, butended up buying just a few toys, including a game of Candylandmarked down to $4.
"I might have picked up more," she said, "if I could have foundwhat I wanted without stepping on people lying on the floor. I gotfed up."
Retail analyst Cohen, who had a team of consultants monitoring11 regions in the country, estimated that 15 percent of purchasesso far on Friday were items for themselves, up from about 9 percentlast year on the same day. On Black Friday 2008, he estimated itdropped to about 5 percent. In good economic times, such purchasesrun about 26 percent, Cohen said.
Kevin Jones, a Black Friday first-timer, was at Walmart inColumbia, Md., to buy a 42-inch Emerson LCD television for $398 forhis new apartment.
"This year, I'm taking care of me first. I deserve a littlegift," he said.
The fierce battle for shoppers' wallets promises savings forthose willing and able to buy amid an economy that's still worryingmany.
The good news is that retailers are heading into the season withsome momentum after a solid start to November. Shoppers who canafford it are buying more nonessentials, like jewelry and luxurygoods. That's helping to lift their spirits about the holidayseason, which is expected to generate revenue gains modestly higherthan a year ago.
Still, nearly 15 million are unemployed, and concerns about jobsecurity cloud consumer confidence. Spending may be picking up buthas not returned to pre-recession levels.
"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 inthe marketplace so they're being more aggressive about getting thelast dollar. At the end of the day, they're going to outweighpeople who are pulling back."
Many stores pushed more exclusive deals online on Thursday in abid to rope in shoppers before Black Friday. It apparently worked.According to IBM's Coremetrics, online sales soared 33 percent onthe holiday compared with Thanksgiving 2009.
Consumers began shopping earlier in the day on Thursday comparedwith a year earlier. And the average order was $182.74, up from$159.81 on last year's Thanksgiving Day.
Thanksgiving weekend is huge for retailers. In recent years,so-called Black Friday has been the busiest shopping day of theyear, according to data from research firm ShopperTrak. But itdoesn't necessarily provide a complete forecast of holiday sales.In fact, shoppers seem to be procrastinating more every year, sothe fate of the holiday season is increasingly down to the last fewdays before Christmas.
Retailers do study buying patterns for the weekend to discernshoppers' mindset. This year, that means taking the measure ontheir willingness to spend just a little bit more.
Last year, the Thanksgiving shopping weekend accounted for 12.3percent of overall holiday revenue, according to ShopperTrak. BlackFriday made up about half of that.
AP Business Writers Mae Anderson in New York, Ashley Heher inChicago, Sarah Skidmore in Portland, Ore., and Ellen Gibson inColumbia, Md., contributed to this report.