- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 28, 2009

Retailers pulled out the stops this year to lure Black Friday shoppers. One mall even gave out doughnuts.

Shoppers, it seems, took the bait.

Shopping center parking lots were jammed Friday, the first official day of the Christmas buying season. Lured by deep discounts - and the occasional free sweet - customers filled stores from early in the morning until late into the night, bringing cheer to storekeepers who, until now, have had little to be happy about.

By 5 a.m. Friday, employees at the Mall at Prince Georges in Hyattsville had handed out 500 goodie bags, which included a fortifying doughnut. By 10:00 a.m. the 3,800-space parking lot reached capacity as a steady flow of shoppers continued to stream in.

“We are very busy here at the Mall of Prince Georges and have been since I arrived at 4:30 this morning,” said Victoria Clark, marketing director of the center. “I see lots of electronics whizzing by me and Macy’s 2-carat bracelet for under $99 seems to be a big hit. The traffic is about the same as last year.”

With more than 96 percent of retail outlets expected to increase promotions, shoppers poured into stores like Target Corp., Wal-Mart, Best Buy Co., and Toys “R” Us as early as midnight looking for big savings. Wal-Mart’s $298 Hewlett-Packard laptop computer and Best Buy’s 32-inch LG flat panel televisions were among this season’s crowd pleasers, along with netbooks and Blu-ray DVD players.

Nicole Walker, a resident of Northeast Washington, began her holiday hunt for a laptop Friday at 2 a.m. in Columbia Heights. After four hours of waiting in line at Best Buy, she bought a $400 laptop.

Ms. Walker, who is unemployed, said, “Money is strapped.” A habitually late holiday shopper, Ms. Walker opted not to procrastinate this year. “I actually did everything early. The economy forced me to.”

With unemployment at a 26-year high of 10.2 percent, price is extremely important to consumers this year, and retailers cannot bank on impulse buys.

James Russo, vice president of marketing at the Nielsen Company, a market research firm, said shoppers will be a lot smarter this year. More than 90 percent of holiday purchases made this year will be planned, he said.

Analysts managed expectations early this year, predicting in October that retail sales would be flat, rising only 1 percent to 2 percent. The National Retail Federation made no Black Friday predictions but expects holiday sales to decline 1 percent, an improvement over last year’s 3 percent decline.

Rick Morgan, general manager for Best Buy in Hanover, Md., was surprised to see a better-than-expected turnout Friday at his store. “This year we were well prepared for the crowds and our quantities are probably higher than ever before,” he said.

Losing Circuit City as a competitor a year ago helped, said Mr. Morgan, but other retailers compete for business.

“We still have competitors in Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, Costco. To encourage shoppers to visit our store, we made the process as easy as possible. There are directional arrows on the floor so customers know exactly where everything is and we did a dry run to ensure that our lines ran smoothly and that our employees were prepared to assist shoppers in any way.”

Angela Aresenovic and her niece, Molly Friedel, got almost every item on their wish lists during the Black Friday blitz. Even the brief scuffle they witnessed while waiting for a Target store in Hanover to open could not deter them from snatching up the 500-gigabyte external hard drive marked at 20 percent off or the Blu-ray DVD player also on sale.

“I do this every year and this year was no different,” Ms. Aresenovic said. “Big crowds and long lines.”

The Disney Store, which opened at midnight in select locations and offered 20 percent off all items including already discounted merchandise, was a big hit for Ms. Aresenovic. “I took care of all the nephews in one spot.”

With consumer confidence down, analysts expected shoppers to be conservative spenders.

But James Russo, vice president of marketing at Neilsen, said that this year’s consumer would be smarter. “More than 90 percent of shopping purchases this year will be planned,” said Mr. Russo, noting that few shoppers would be seduced by impulse buys.

Iris Bates of Baltimore was a Black Friday rookie, but she had no intentions of overspending. “I bought a 19-inch Samsung TV for $128 from Wal-Mart, and this is it.”

To ensure that customers received the very best in customer service from mall employees, the management team of Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax treated employees to neck, shoulder or hand massages throughout the day.

Message therapists from the Wright Touch set up massage chairs in the break rooms of each store and gave 5-minute massages to any employee interested.

Patrick Ryan, a cash manager at J.C. Penney, began his shift at 2:50 a.m. Seven hours later he was grateful for his free massage. “I’m in favor of having something like this every day,” he said.

But not everyone found what that they were looking for this Black Friday.

“I don’t know if shopping in Georgetown is conducive to [my] budget,” said Leila Aminpour, 24, while standing outside H&M clothing, waiting for it to open. “I’m out looking for the best deals.”

Georgetown retailers, known for high-end apparel, did not indulge early risers with early morning openings and doughnuts. For many Georgetown merchants it was business as usual. Ms. Aminpour and friend 23-year-old Flora Rostami waited an hour for H&M to open its doors.

“It’s assumed that stores would be open early,” Ms. Rostami said.

Tim Devaney and Kelsey Knutson contributed to this article.

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