Black Friday draws big crowds

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Tammy and Lisa Fluke had already been up for hours when they walked through the doors of the Chehalis Kmart this morning at 6 o'clock, ready to pick up deals during the post-Thanksgiving holiday spree that retailers call "Black Friday."

The Raymond sisters-in-law had stopped at Wal-Mart for its 5 a.m. specials and were planning to head south to Portland with four other relatives for their annual two-day shopping bash.

"We leave our men and kids behind. We're hard-core shopaholics," Tammy Fluke said this morning.

They were joined by crowds of shoppers who formed a line stretching along Kmart's sidewalk, hoping to nab deals on toys, electronics, even fondue sets.

Sharie Bullough of Tenino was one of the first people to walk through the checkout stand. Her cart was bulging with ten identical chocolate fondue makers for $29.99 each.

"It's for a wedding," she explained.

Tamera Schultz had trouble fitting all her purchases into a single shopping cart. She was at her second of five stops to buy Christmas gifts for her five-year-old twins. The Chehalis mother estimated she would spend $1,000 today, buying one girl and one boy version of each item.

There were specials this morning at many Twin Cities shops, from Ace Hardware to Sears.

At Staples, Holly Gullickson of Centralia and her year-old son Hayden were near the front of a seemingly endless checkout line at 6:30 a.m. after what had already been a long morning of shopping.

"We've already been at Wal-Mart and done the whole thing," she said as her son played with a cell phone in her shopping cart. "We're crazy."

Across the nation, retailers heightened their pitch to shoppers with expanded hours, generous discounts and free money in the form of gift cards to lure consumers in a slowing but still steady economy. A growing number of stores and malls unlocked their doors at midnight to jump-start the season. CompUSA Inc. and BJ's Wholesale Club Inc. even opened on Thanksgiving for the first time.

'Retailers are doing more to get consumers into the stores earlier this year,' said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, based in Charleston, S.C.

This year, a growing number of shoppers like Sean Humphreys headed straight from their turkey dinner to the malls to take advantage of midnight openings.

'I wanted to see if I could get anything early,' said Humphreys, who was picking out clothing at a Ralph Lauren Polo store at 12:04 a.m. Friday at the Premium Outlet Center 25 miles north of Dallas.

Even if they weren't heading to stores pulling all-nighters, plenty of shoppers embraced the official opening of the shopping season with bravado, camping out outside stores like Best Buy starting on Thursday morning and skipping a sit-down feast altogether.

The Best Buy store in West Patterson, N.J., had almost 2,000 people in line for Friday's 5 a.m. opening, many of whom had lined up starting at 8 a.m. on Thursday.

'They had turkey sandwiches,' said Chuck O'Donnell, a Best Buy district service manager, which did well with all the early morning specials advertised in its circular, including $1,000 42-inch, high-definition Westinghouse TVs and digital cameras for $80.

Even those who arrived early Friday and waited in line for the doors to open at 5 a.m. were not guaranteed success. Brian Clark, 27, of Bristol left empty-handed after the televisions and computers he'd eyed as Christmas gifts were snatched by earlier shoppers.

Alarmed by a recent shooting of a customer waiting outside a Connecticut Wal-Mart store for Sony's PlayStation 3, which are almost impossible to find, Clark had tucked his Glock pistol in a holster under his jacket and put extra ammunition in his pocket before heading out early Friday.

'Not that I'll probably need it, but just in case. You never know these days,' he said, quickly adding that he has a state permit for a concealed weapon.

Plenty of shoppers, like Rochelle Little, 28, of Palmyra, N.J., had been preparing for Black Friday since mid-October, helped by a swath of new Web sites, like blackfriday.info and fatwallet.com, that post retailers' deals. (Black Friday got its name because many stores that would otherwise have been in the red traditionally ended up posting profits from the surge of holiday shopping.)

Little monitored a Web site called BFAds.net to help map her shopping excursion as precisely as a military campaign, first at Toys 'R' Us, then Wal-Mart and Target. She said the planning worked. Little was able to get her 7-year-old son, Taron Hampton, a motorized scooter for $99 - a savings of $70 - and a Robosapien remote control robot for $30.

While Black Friday officially starts holiday shopping, generally it's no longer the busiest day of the season - that honor now falls to the last Saturday before Christmas. Stores say Black Friday sets the tone for the overall season, however: What consumers see that day influences where they will shop for the rest of the season.

Last year, total Black Friday sales dipped 0.9 percent to $8 billion from the year before, dampened by deep discounting, according to Shopper Trak RCT Corp., which tracks sales at more than 45,000 mall-based retail outlets. For the Thanksgiving weekend, total sales rose just 0.4 percent to $16.8 billion.

Even so, merchants ended up meeting their holiday sales projections, helped by a last-minute buying surge and post-Christmas shopping.

This year, analysts expect robust holiday sales gains for the retail industry, though the pace is expected to be slower than a year ago. The National Retail Federation projects a 5 percent gain in total holiday sales for the November-December period, less than the 6.1 percent in the year-ago period.

Meanwhile, the International Council of Shopping Centers estimates sales at stores open at least a year will rise 3 percent in the November-December period, less than last year's 3.6 percent.

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