- The Washington Times - Friday, November 26, 2004

Karen Page braved pre-dawn darkness and freezing temperatures yesterday to face down a scene of “organized chaos.”

Hundreds of early-bird shoppers were waiting outside or in idling cars when Miss Page arrived for her job as a store greeter at Toys R Us in Fair Oaks Shopping Center in Fairfax.

Welcome to “Black Friday,” perhaps the biggest retail sales day of the year as millions of shoppers across America are lured to stores with expanded hours and heavily discounted prices.

“This is an organized chaos, which is a good thing,” said Miss Page, who took up a position at the front of the store to greet and assist customers. She was quickly overwhelmed as crowds poured in and countless customers asked her to find a particular toy.

On Black Friday shoppers hope to get the best stuff at the best prices for holiday gifts. Retailers hope to get a jump on the holiday sales season, which traditionally starts after Thanksgiving and runs through Christmas, said Ellen Tolley spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation, the largest trade association for retailers.

The day after Thanksgiving is called “Black Friday” because it is traditionally the day when retailers’ books shift from red to black.

“You’ll see more consumers buying things ahead of time,” she said.

Miss Page, who has been working at the Toys R Us since 1995, called the 300 to 400 people waiting outside before the store opening yesterday “about average.”

Retailers nationwide anticipate a 4.5 percent sales jump this holiday season, bringing total spending up to $219.9 billion, Miss Tolley said.

That is less than last year’s holiday sales spike of 5.1 percent, but still solid, she said.

“It’s a sign that consumers are more settled than they were a year ago and they feel comfortable financially and confident with the economy,” Miss Tolley said.

Americans will spend on average $730 on Christmas gifts, accounting for roughly a quarter of annual retail sales, down from last year’s $734 per person, according to Gallup’s annual holiday survey.

Luxury items like high-end electronics, furs and jewelry, along with toys are expected to lead sales this holiday season, Miss Tolley said.

Additionally, consumers will spend an average $80.45 on gift cards, she said.

Not all of those items will be bought at stores. Washington area shoppers will spend 58 percent of their budget online this year, according to America Online.

Retailers in the District also are trying to attract shoppers with a sales tax holiday, which will run through Dec. 5.

Washington’s 5.75 percent sales tax will be exempted from clothing, shoes and accessories that cost less than $100 each. There is no limit on the total value of the purchases.

Susan Ream, who traveled from Richmond to shop with her daughter, said she plans to spend $400 this holiday.

She had already hit two other stores before arriving at Toys R Us in Fairfax at 6 a.m.

With her color-coordinated shopping list in hand, Ms. Ream stacked several Crayola paint kits and a Geomag, a magnetic building set, into her cart.

Like other retailers, the Toys R Us store opened about 10 minutes early to accommodate shoppers waiting in the cold.

Its biggest competitor, Wal-Mart, started its discounts at 6 a.m. Hundreds of shoppers at Wal-Mart’s 24-hour stores lined up 30 to 45 minutes in front of the reduced-price items, said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Karen Burk.

Electronics, such as a portable DVD player for $99.74, and toys, like the Leap Frog learning center for $20, were popular items and selling fast, Mrs. Burk said.

Target chain stores also opened at 6 a.m., with stores offering free wake-up calls.

KB Toys, which many shoppers hit first for its “door-buster” sales, opened at 5 a.m., touting specials like a Game Boy Advance SP System for $49.99.

At Toys R Us, the same video game system, along with two games and headphones, cost $79.95.

This year the store ended its policy of matching prices at other stores for “Black Friday” and today. “We feel we are offering value items at competitive prices,” said Norm Mehta, store director for the Fairfax location.

Toys R Us has suffered lagging sales in the past few years because of intense competition from discount retailers.

The company narrowed its loss in its third quarter ended Oct. 31 to $25 million (12 cents per share) from $46 million (22 cents) a year earlier. Sales for the quarter were down 2 percent to $2.21 billion from $2.25 billion last year.

The Wayne, N.J., toy-store chain announced in August it would spin off its Babies R Us stores and restructure its corporate operations.

Toys made exclusively for Toys R Us from toy manufacturers like Mattel, Hasbro and MGA Entertainment Inc. have helped the chain gain an edge over the competition.

Items like a My Little Pony set for $9.97, a Pop World Barbie Fashion Mall for $99.99, and a Ford-branded sound system for $99.99 were thrown into several shopping carts yesterday.

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