- The Washington Times - Friday, November 28, 2003

Donna De Marco, William Glanz and Marguerite Higgins


Rain didn’t dampen shoppers’ spirits yesterday as they flocked to stores and malls to jump-start their holiday season. Retailers welcomed eager consumers with early-bird specials, deep discounts and extended hours.

“Stores have been full of shoppers because the promotions and sales are too good for value-conscious consumers to pass up,” said Tracy Mullin, president and chief executive officer of the National Retail Federation (NRF).

Yesterday marked the official start to the critical holiday shopping season. About one-third of Americans planned to shop on “Black Friday,” according to the 2003 American Express Retail Index on holiday shopping.

“The day after Thanksgiving is a highlight for both retailers and consumers,” said John Theiss, vice president of retail industries at American Express. “While many shoppers are drawn to the energy of the stores and the holiday kickoff, most report that they will be out to the get the best deals and bargains.”

Electronics and toys continue to top wish lists.

A line of early-bird customers wrapped around the Best Buy at Bowie Town Center yesterday waiting for the store’s 6 a.m. opening. The store was still packed mid-morning with lines dozens of people long waiting to check out.

Denise McGregor of Mitchellville was in line for more than 30 minutes with a cart full of electronics, including a gift for her husband and a stereo receiver she found on sale.

The Black Friday veteran said she gathered all the store circulars Wednesday and planned her itinerary: Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Target and Michaels.

“I left my son with my husband and told them I’ll see them much later,” Mrs. McGregor said, knowing exactly what she would be up against.

“According to my husband, I love the chaos,” she said. “I’ll still be out at all the malls on the weekends and I’ll be out Christmas Eve and the day after Christmas.”

DVD players, high-definition TVs, computers and digital cameras are the store’s fastest-selling items, General Manager Alan Eisgrau said .

Sale items such as Polaroid’s $79.99 DVD/VCR Combo and a $49.99 Samsung DVD/CD/MP3 player were stacked in the aisles. By late morning, the video games and DVDs had been raked over. Camcorder accessories were out of stock.

Nancy Brown of Olney descended on Bowie Town Center with about eight female family members — an annual Black Friday tradition. She had a gift list and DVDs in her hand and was perusing a CD display.

“This is the worst,” she said, comparing the Best Buy crowd with those at the other stores she had visited along the shopping center’s main street when she started at 10 a.m. yesterday.

Despite sporadic rain, Bowie Town Center had a steady pace of shoppers — with Best Buy, Bed, Bath & Beyond and Old Navy among the busiest.

Kathy Murray of Crofton, Md., took a break at the food court yesterday afternoon as she waited for her two daughters. This was the first Black Friday experience for Mrs. Murray, who had been shopping since 6 a.m. and was surrounded by shopping bags.

“Truthfully, it’s not as bad as I thought it would be,” she said. “I always thought everyone was insane who did this.”

Black Friday loses its sheen

Typically, the first shopping weekend of the holiday season — beginning the day after Thanksgiving — gauges how retailers will do for the rest of the season. But “Black Friday,” which retailers traditionally have relied upon to pull their ledgers out of “the red” for the year, has lost some significance in recent years because consumers have been waiting much later in the season to do their shopping.

Last year, the busiest shopping day was Dec. 21, the Saturday before Christmas, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. Black Friday ranked fourth.

Retail officials say this holiday shopping season may be one of the best in recent years since the economy is picking up and consumer confidence is high.

Shoppers are expected to spend $217.4 billion on clothes, toys, appliances, furniture and other general merchandise — up 5.7 percent from last year, according to the NRF.

Retailers are stocking less merchandise and managing their inventories carefully so they won’t be stuck unloading products at rock-bottom prices as the season ends.

“Retailers have been advising consumers to shop early,” said Ellen Tolley, an NRF spokeswoman. “Inventories will be lean and the best merchandise will go quickly.”

While consumers hit the long lines and stalk fellow shoppers for vacant parking spaces, many shoppers will visit cyberspace to find deals and a convenient shopping experience.

About 63.6 million shoppers are expected to shop online this holiday season and shell out nearly $17 billion — a 20 percent increase in November and December sales from last year, according to Jupiter Research.

Wal-Mart brings in crowds

While people were lined up at the Wal-Mart in Alexandria by 4 a.m., store manager Tracey Battle said she was amazed at how smoothly shoppers were coming through by early afternoon.

“I have quite a few war stories of people breaking down doors when we open, but the crowds were very civil” during the 6 a.m. opening yesterday, said Mrs. Battle, a 15-year Wal-Mart employee.

Most of the shoppers had at least one DVD player, television set, computer, digital camera or vacuum in their shopping carts with discounted DVDs, CDs, jewelry and clothes.

While checkout lines were about 10 to 20 people deep, the layaway line outstretched them, with some customers waiting up to two hours to put their holiday treasures on hold.

Dana Vaile of Alexandria showed up at 5:45 a.m. to grab one of the coveted $29 DVDs, which sold out minutes after the store opened.

“The lines really haven’t been that bad this year,” said Ms. Vaile, who waited in the layaway line at 11 a.m. to put the DVD and a $500 desktop computer set, which included a 17-inch monitor, on hold.

“It’s been worth the wait so far to get these sales,” she said.

But not all shoppers were satisfied with the much-hyped sales.

“I just don’t see any sales that made it worth getting out of bed this morning,” said Alexandria resident Regina Cole at a Wal-Mart checkout line.

Tie-ups at Tysons

Patricia Williams had no intention of buying the love seat she rested on at Hecht’s during her shopping sojourn.

The 78-year old Arkansas resident just needed to relax during a busy day of shopping at Tysons Corner Center, Va., with her son’s family.

“I’m just sitting here, and they’re kind enough to allow me to,” she said.

Mrs. Williams said she isn’t comfortable spending more money on Christmas gifts this year, even while she sees the economy improving.

“I’m delighted to see it looking up, but it isn’t influencing me one bit,” she said.

John McWilliams, 72, said the economy won’t influence him either, buy he’s spending about 25 percent more money this year on clothes, electronics and tools for his children and grandchildren.

On a bench outside Nordstrom, Mr. McWilliams waited patiently for his wife, MarJean, to finish her Christmas shopping.

She’s usually done by this time of year, he said, but she was having trouble finding one item, and she was empty-handed when she came to retrieve her affable husband.

“I’m looking for a particular pair of shoes for my daughter-in-law,” a flustered Mrs. McWilliams said.

Parking spots were just as hard to find. Traffic became worse around Tysons Corner Center as the day wore on. Vehicles inched along Route 7 near the mall and on exit ramps from the Capital Beltway.

Seats on benches and at mall restaurants also were difficult to come by.

Carole Lapergola, who owns Purseonalities, a kiosk that sells handbags, said she was encouraged by the massive crowd that arrived early and seemed to grow throughout the day.

“If people aren’t worried about money, they’re going to spend it,” she said.

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