- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 29, 2008

Putting Norman Rockwell on hold, Harash Habibzadeh passed up a Thanksgiving dinner with his fiancee, family and friends to stake out a spot in line outside the Wal-Mart at Fair Lakes Shopping Center.

He and some friends bundled up in layers Thursday night and gathered around a space heater, braving near-freezing weather for a chance to snag some of the best deals of the holiday shopping season when the Fairfax store opened its doors at 4 a.m. Friday.

When the doors opened at the nearby Fair Oaks Mall, “Black Friday” shoppers were out in force, undeterred by forecasts of a gloomy sales season.

Sandy Molyneux and daughter Stephanie were one of many mother-daughter teams combing their way through the shopping center to take advantage of retail specials — in their case, 30 percent off merchandise at Pacific Sunwear.

“We go every year, not that we need anything,” said Ms. Molyneux of Gainesville, Va.

Like other bargain-hunters, the pair said concerns about an economic downturn curbed their spending this year.

“It’s slowed me down,” Ms. Molyneux said. “It’s going to be all cash.”

Back at the Fair Lakes Wal-Mart, the eye of the hurricane was in the electronics section as its feeder bands of chaos spread into the aisles. Customers carried huge televisions over their heads, stuffed them into shopping carts or dragged them along the floor.

Rita Plebuch of Chantilly, no rookie to the scene, calmly stood her ground. “This is worse than last year,” she said. “It’s quite a surprise, which is nice.”

“Many of the early birds who were there right at 5 a.m. were there for the electronics. They knew what they wanted,” said Elizabeth Anderson, Wal-Mart regional director of media and community relations. “We saw the Wiis jump off the shelf.”

Jen Miller of Manassas woke up her family at 4 a.m. to head to Manassas Mall, which was followed by a trip to Wal-Mart, a stop for breakfast, and then Fair Oaks. Among the items on the 20-year-old’s shopping list: a drill for her father, a jacket for her mother, a scarf and aftershave. Miss Miller said the crowd at Wal-Mart was “horrible.”

“You couldn’t even tell where the lines started,” she said.

At Forever 21, about 125 people were waiting outside the clothing store before it opened its doors at 5 a.m. The first 200 people received scratch-off tickets, one of which was worth a $300 shopping spree.

“It totally worked,” said District Manager Lauren Trattner, who was nearly out of breath hours later.

The store’s big draw was a buy-one-get-one-free promotion on all sale items. Ms. Trattner said the retailer was also selling many accessories, forcing employees to make trips to the stockroom about every half-hour to replace them.

“It’s all hands on deck,” she said, adding that 110 employees were scheduled to work Friday.

Ferris Kaplan, head of marketing at Fair Oaks, noted there are only 26 shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year, compared with 32 days a year ago. To encourage Black Friday customers, the mall offered $50 gift cards to people who spend $300 or more, excluding department store sales. About 40 percent of the gift cards were gone in 2 1/2 hours.

Mr. Kaplan said the credit crunch didn’t appear to be slowing sales as much as one might have expected.

“We thought we’d see a lot of people browsing, but we’re seeing a lot of shopping bags, so that’s a good sign,” he said.

In a year in which the National Retail Federation has predicted the slowest Christmas sales growth in six years, Mr. Kaplan said he remains “cautiously optimistic.”

“It’s Fairfax County; it’s resilient,” he said.

Louis Ball, assistant manager at Liljenquist & Beckstead, agreed.

“The Washington area is more recession-proof than Ohio or the Midwest,” he said. “People with money are going to spend it.”

For example, he said, the luxury jeweler sold three Rolex watches in October for about $22,000 apiece. He also predicted an uptick in business with the end of the elections as new members of Congress and government appointees move into the area.

“We kept the economy going,” said Paula Waxman of Philadelphia, sitting with her daughter, Marcy Katzman of Herndon, a pile of shopping bags and a couple of coffees.

“We’re not your typical Black Friday shoppers,” Ms. Katzman said.

The duo said 15-percent-off coupons drew them to Lord & Taylor, where they spent about two hours and picked up a pocketbook, some clothes and a pair of Ugg boots.

After more than four hours of shopping, Chris Oronzio said he needed a break.

“I drive, and I pay,” joked the Fair Oaks resident, whose wife, daughter and son were spread out in various corners of the mall. His family got its start at 6 a.m. at nearby Best Buy, but drove to Circuit City after the retailer would only let in a certain number of shoppers at one time, leaving “the rest of us out in the 35-degree weather.”

They then moved on to Target, which was packed.

“They needed a traffic cop there to keep the carts from crashing into each other,” he said.

Asked if the financial crisis has affected his holiday budget, Mr. Oronzio said his family started scaling back and using only cash a few years ago.

“Like most people, we’re waiting to see if we can get better deals,” he said. “I think everybody is holding onto their money a little more.”

The new Target store in Columbia Heights had modest expectations for its first Black Friday, but “around 400 people were waiting outside” when the store opened at 6 a.m., said manager Darran Whitlock.

By midday, however, the initial throng of shoppers had thinned out somewhat.

“It’s pretty dead here,” said Myisha Morgan, 23, who came to buy suitcases with her 3-year-old son. “I’m from the neighborhood and, to be honest, I find the store pretty empty compared to usually.”

The nearby Best Buy was attracting a fairly steady stream of customers.

“I have already done six Black Fridays before in a Best Buy in Manhattan, and in terms of traffic, it is doing very well so far,” said store manager John Zittrauer. “We sold a lot of laptops, TVs and cell phones. … It’s been a rush on everything.”

At the Georgetown Park mall at M Street and Wisconsin Ave. Northwest, Japanese tourists, European expatriates and groups of girls browsed the shops.

D.C. resident Ashley Thomson, 25, found plenty of room to roam there. “I go to Black Friday every year, and it’s pretty dead this year. Usually people go crazy for toys or clothes. Today, it seems that they are still sleeping.”

• Anne-Laure Buffard contributed to this report.

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