- The Washington Times - Friday, November 28, 2008

NEW YORK (AP) – Shoppers, who had snapped their wallets shut since September, flocked to stores before dawn Friday to grab deals on everything from TVs to toys for the traditional start of the holiday shopping season, feared to be the weakest in decades.

Retailers extended their hours — some opening at midnight — and offered deals that promised to be deeper and wider than even the deep discounts that shoppers found throughout November.

Best Buy, which threw its doors open at 5 a.m. offered such early morning specials as a 49-inch Panasonic plasma HDTV for $899.99 and a $189.99 GPS device by Garmin. Toys “R” Us, was offering up to 60 percent discounts from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m.

But it was clear that despite the crowds that showed up for the early morning deals, shoppers’ worries about the economy — massive layoffs, tightening credit and dwindling retirement accounts — tempered buying.

Many consumers, clutching the store circulars, were focused on a few items Friday and said they were slashing their overall holiday budgets from a year ago as they juggle paying their rent and other bills while putting food on the table.

“I have never slept here before to save a few bucks, but with the economy so bad I thought that even a few dollars helps. Saving a few bucks here and there helps,” said Analita Garcia of Falls Church, Va., who arrived at a local Best Buy store at 7 a.m. Thursday with 10 other family members. She bought a Dynax LCD 32-inch TV for $400, slashed from $500, along with an iPod and several DVDs.

“This year a lot of people I know won’t be getting Christmas presents. I have to pay the rent and bills, and I have two little ones at home to think of,” Garcia added.

At the Best Buy store in Syracuse, N.Y., a line snaked past stores and around walkways on the second floor of Carousel Center a few moments before the store’s 5 a.m. opening — about eight hours after some people near the front of the line had arrived. Rob Schoeneck, the mall’s manager, estimated about 1,000 people were waiting for the electronics store to open and said the crowd was about the same size as a year ago.

Inside, Kira Carinci, 33, a teacher from Cicero, N.Y., searched for the $80 “Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock” video game and guitar controller bundle for her son but said she is more concerned about money than she was last holiday season. She said she had set aside a certain amount for Christmas spending.

“I don’t usually save, so this year is a little different,” she said.

By 3:45 a.m., about 50 people had lined up in preparation for the 5 a.m. opening at a Wal-Mart store in Cary, N.C. Shannon Keane, 38, of Cary, who arrived with her son, Miles, 13, at midnight, said she was buying only one item today: an iPod for her son.

“He really wanted this one thing,” Keane said. “So we’re here for this one thing.”

Keane, who was recently laid off from her job at an insurance company, said she was on a budget this year because her unemployment checks were also helping support family in Colorado.

“I really can’t focus on gifts,” she said. “I have to focus more on helping them pay their bills. It’s hard,” she said of being a single mom on a small income. “I’ve always filled the tree. But you have to be honest. This year, I’ll do the best I can.”

Black Friday — which falls on the day after Thanksgiving and officially starts the holiday shopping period — received its name because it historically was the day when a surge of shoppers helped stores break into profitability for the full year. But this year, with rampant promotions of up to 70 percent throughout the month amid a deteriorating economy, the power of this landmark day for the retail industry could be fading.

Still, while it isn’t a predictor of holiday season sales, the day after Thanksgiving is an important barometer of people’s willingness to spend for the rest of the season. And particularly this year, analysts will dissect how the economy is shaping shoppers’ buying habits, including whether they will spring for big-ticket items or focus on small purchases like gloves and hats.

Another issue that Wall Street analysts are watching is how shoppers will pay for the gifts. Shoppers, who may be maxed out on their credit cards or trying to manage to their money better, have been increasingly using cash or debit cards instead of credit cards to pay for purchases in recent months.

“No credit cards this year,” said Linda Patton of Louisburg, N.C. who was shopping at a local Wal-Mart on Friday. “We’re trying not to carry over any bills.”

Last year, the Thanksgiving shopping weekend of Friday through Sunday accounted for about 10 percent of overall holiday sales, according to ShopperTrak RCT Corp.

The group hasn’t released estimates for Black Friday sales this year, but experts believe it will remain one of the season’s biggest selling days, even as shoppers remain deliberate in their spending.

Britt Beemer, chairman of America’s Research Group, expects to see the surge of shoppers dramatically taper off throughout the day and into the weekend.

“I think we are going to see the busiest Black Friday ever, but will it carry over past 10 a.m.?” he said. “The bottom line is a great Black Friday does not make a season.”

AP Retail Writer Ashley M. Heher in Chicago; AP Technology Writer Rachel Metz in Syracuse, N.Y.; and Associated Press Writers Barbara Rodriguez in Raleigh, N.C.; Kelly P. Kissel in Lake Charles, La.; and Jacquelyn Martin in Falls Church, Va., contributed to this report.

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