- The Washington Times - Friday, November 25, 2005

There’s a broken register in home appliances, a customer shouting obscenities because the laptop computer she wanted is sold out, and a check-out line that’s growing longer and longer at Best Buy in Falls Church.

And the sun isn’t even up yet.

The day after Thanksgiving, though it lost its claim as the biggest shopping day of the year to the Saturday before Christmas, marks the traditional start of the holiday shopping season. Retailers lure crowds to the stores by opening doors early and marking down products for a few hours, setting the stage for potential mayhem in popular sections, such as electronics.

Emily Cushman, 22, customer-service manager at Best Buy, gives a cashier a cash bag to use instead of the broken register, puts in a call to the police to deal with the malcontent (she left on her own later), and keeps customers moving in a steady line toward the cash registers — all shortly after the doors opened at 5 a.m.

“It’s very busy and very hectic,” said Miss Cushman, a six-year veteran of holiday retail crowds. “It can be a lot of fun, you just have to let it be.”

The crowds are drawn to electronics, which are expected to be one of the biggest sellers this holiday, led by Apple’s trendy IPod and Microsoft’s XBox 360, according to retail analysts.

Nearly three quarters of shoppers plan to spend more on consumer electronics this year than last year, according to a retail study by SG Cowen, a New York market research firm. More than half said Best Buy is one of the three shops where they will purchase electronics.

The approximately 700 people who lined up outside the store in the wee hours of the morning obviously agree.

Deals like a Toshiba 15-inch notebook computer marked down to $379 persuaded David White, Annette White, Kris White and Joseph Wittusen to claim the first spots in Best Buy’s line in 25-degree temperatures at 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving — eight hours before the doors opened.

A few minutes before the store opened, they laid out their strategy: “Move out of the way for all the idiots,” David White said, referring to the people behind them. “And go as fast as possible.”

Inside, more than 50 employees geared up for the 5 a.m. opening, an hour earlier than last year.

“Some of you haven’t been here before — there’s going to be a huge rush of people,” cautions store manager Roberto Perez. “Don’t panic.”

Miss Cushman and the other employees don’t seem to mind it’s 4:45 a.m. They respond with a resounding chorus of “All right. OK. All right. OK.” that has the energy of a high school football team prepping for the big game.

Once the crowd pours in, customers pepper Miss Cushman with questions about where to find the portable DVD players, computers and video games. Her walkie-talkie provides a constant hum of questions from employees.

“The first 15 minutes it was docile, then it was a swarm,” she said, while maneuvering over baskets of batteries and around shopping carts.

About 130 million people shopped yesterday on “Black Friday,” which got its nickname from the number of retailers whose accounting books went from the red to the black on the day after Thanksgiving, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF), a District trade group.

About 9 percent of all holiday shopping was done over Thanksgiving weekend in 2003 and 2004 and analysts expect about the same amount will be done this year, said Patrice Duker, spokeswoman for the International Council of Shopping Centers.

And, increasingly, consumers are getting their shopping done on their computers. Online commerce accounted for 2.2 percent of all retail sales in the first and second quarters of this year, recent figures show.

Shopping on U.S. online sites will rise 24 percent in November and December to $19 billion, according to ComScore Networks Inc., a Reston-based Internet research company. Growth will be boosted by more shoppers using the Web and consumers’ desire to cut spending on gasoline by not driving to stores.

“Across the board — Wal-Mart, Target, Kohl’s — a lot of stores are offering sales this weekend,” Mrs. Duker said.

“This will go down as one of the earliest and most promotional Black Fridays in history,” said NRF President and Chief Executive Officer Tracy Mullin.

Best Buy’s hottest items — including the Toshiba computer, a $149.99 EMachine computer system, and a $69.99 portable DVD player — sold out quickly, with most going to the people in line before the store opened, Miss Cushman said.

At noon, the $379.99 Toshiba computer turned into a $749.99 pumpkin. While it was one of the deepest discounts at Best Buy, the shopping season just started and analysts say retails will still have products on sale up until the holidays.

Benita Raza and her family spent about $2,000 on a DVD and VCR, DVD speakers, projector and other electronics. She saved about $700 by shopping early.

Prices on electronics have fallen since last year, lending to the expected jump in electronics sales this season.

“It’s on sale, and it’s nice to buy it now,” Mrs. Raza said of why she woke her family at 3 a.m. to shop. “Maybe [later] this Christmas, it’s not going to be on sale.”

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