Eager shoppers brave long waits for deals on first shopping day of holiday season

Friday, November 26th 2004, 9:20 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) The nation's retailers threw open their doors before the sun rose Friday, tempting early risers on the first shopping day of the holiday season with super specials and free coffee.

The deep discounts and refreshments were a bid by merchants to ring up their holiday sales fast on the day they dub Black Friday. And they're keeping their fingers crossed that, in an improving though still challenging economy, the crowds will keep coming throughout the next month.

At the Orange Park Mall in suburban Jacksonville, Fla., several hundred people cheered outside J.C. Penney as the doors opened at 5:30 a.m. They scurried to get out of the 40-degree weather, unseasonably cold for the South in November.

Phyllis Renninger, 52, waited with her 22-year-old daughter, Katie, for struggling KB Toys to open up at 6 a.m. The women had a piece of notebook paper with a detailed ``game plan'' of the stores where they planned to shop.

``Hopefully we'll get some good deals,'' Renninger said, adding she wanted to spend less this year ``but get more.''

Eight women in Coleen Baker's family fanned out across the mall with walkie-talkies and cell phones, snapping up a microwave oven, digital camera and CD players. ``I've already saved $70,'' Baker said around 6:30 a.m.

In South Charleston, W.Va., several hundred shoppers braved temperatures in the 20s to stand in line for Kohl's to open its doors at 5:30 a.m.

Many were hoping to pick up a discounted portable DVD player, while others were hoping to get much of their Christmas shopping done with toys on sale for half-price.

``We're here for the $159 DVD player,'' Tammy Tucker, visiting from Concord, N.C., said from close to the front of the line. ``I'm worried it's going to be a bit of a fight to get one.''

Many of the particularly big discounts on the day after Thanksgiving are limited to early shoppers, so dedicated bargain hunters come early.

At the BestBuy in Little Rock, Ark., store employees passed out doughnuts and coffee to more than 300 people in line by 5 a.m. Uttim Karki drove two hours to the store to be in line by 1 a.m. _ and found 10 people ahead of him.

``Just look at these deals,'' said Karki, 24.

At least two chains _ J.C. Penney and Sears, Roebuck _ opened their doors a half-hour to an hour earlier than a year ago to lure early risers. KB Toys Inc., which sought bankruptcy protection this year, extended early bird specials all day long instead of having them end at noon.

A cold snap prompted Toys R Us in Columbia, S.C., to let in shivering customers an hour earlier than the advertised 6 a.m.

Karen Dawkins, 39, said the early morning search is a tradition in her family. While she was at the Toys R Us, her mother was making the rounds at Circuit City and her sister was at Target _ so she planned to wrap up all her holiday shopping Friday.

``I'm almost done now,'' she said, shortly after 6 a.m.

Farther north, in Manchester, Conn., Claude Samson, 35, had lined up at 3 a.m. in front of Wal-Mart, two 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.''

Things weren't going as well in the cold and rainy Midwest. In Bismarck, N.D., 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.

Still, some were willing to brave the cold. Many of the Wal-Mart shoppers said they wanted to by a 24-inch flat-screen television, on sale for $139.92.

``I got here about 3:30 a.m. I didn't get much sleep at all,'' said Lorie Ennen, who was the first in line and saved spots for several family members.

Most 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 up 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 total sales, excluding restaurant and auto sales, will increase 4.5 percent for November and December. That would be less than the 5.1 percent gain of a year earlier.

Last year, retailers' efforts to get shoppers to buy early worked. During the 2003 holiday shopping season, the busiest day was the Friday after Thanksgiving, instead of the last Saturday before Christmas, which has been the busiest over the last 10 years, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Whether this year follows that trend remains to be seen, but shoppers were enjoying the early binge.

``To me, shopping is a sport, so this is sort of like the ultimate Olympics,'' said Katie Dziedzic, 33, who snapped up a $30 CD player at 5 a.m. at a Wal-Mart in Manchester, Conn.