- The Washington Times - Friday, November 25, 2011

Patricia Peart might have started a new tradition this Thanksgiving, as she enjoyed a tasty meal, filled with turkey, stuffing and sweet potatoes. The difference?

While most Americans ate at home relaxing, she ate while she was standing in line outside Best Buy in Columbia Heights.

“I had Thanksgiving dinner standing in line [for] Black Friday,” the D.C. resident said.

Ms. Peart gave up a big part of Thanksgiving Day to stand in line starting at 3 p.m. Thursday — nine hours before the midnight door opening. But her friend, Kelly Corbin, made the wait easier. She dropped by at 6 p.m. and brought food.

“I went home and had dinner with my family,” said Ms. Corbin of Silver Spring. “Then, I brought her dinner.”

The strategy paid off — Ms. Peart enjoyed good home cooking; Ms. Corbin got a spot in line that Ms. Peart saved for her; each ended up with a 42-inch Sharp LCD television for only $199.

“By getting it for this price, it was worth it,” Ms. Peart said. “I’ll be glad when I get out of here and go home.”

Early reports indicate the nations retailers had a better Black Friday in 2011, after several recession-wracked years on the busiest shopping day of the year. These numbers are becoming increasingly important to the retail industry, with the one-month period between Thanksgiving and Christmas making up 20 percent of annual sales.

According to a Saturday report from ShopperTrak, a Chicago-based firm that gathers information from 25,000 malls and retail stores, Americans dropped a record $11.4 billion in brick-and-mortar stores Friday — an increase of nearly $1 billion over last year, and the biggest year-over-year increase since 2007.

ShopperTrak reported that retail sales also rose 4 percent in the two weeks leading up to Black Friday, a result of competition among retailers to start their Black Friday promotions ever earlier.

Online outlets also saw a healthy increase this year, according to IBM’s tracking report on sales at 500 online retailers. Black Friday purchases were up 24.3 percent over 2010, and Thanksgiving Day itself saw a 39 percent rise in online sales over last year.

According to estimates by the National Retail Federation released Sunday, a record 226 million shoppers visited stores and websites over the four-day holiday weekend, up from 212 million last year.

The Federation also estimated that 24 percent of Black Friday shoppers nationwide were at stores at midnight, a big leap from 9.5 percent in 2010, though many fewer stores were open in 2010. Among those midnight shoppers, 37 percent were aged 18-34.

Black Friday is known for competitive shopping — people waiting outside in long lines for hours before a store opens, then rushing inside at once and racing around the store, hoping their favorite deals are still there. This creates an atmosphere of chaos and has led to shoppers being trampled in past years.

So some stores such as Best Buy and Target are taking the “Black Friday” out of Black Friday.

The new strategy is to let small groups of people in at a time. As they leave, the next group goes in. To further guard against chaos, workers walk up and down the lines handing out tickets for the hottest deals in a first-come-first-served order. So when customers get inside, they don’t have to run around the store, because they already know what deals they are guaranteed.

Some customers like it. They feel safer.

“It’s better when they’re only letting a certain amount of people in at a time,” said Ms. Corbin, who was standing toward the front of the line. “It would definitely be a riot if they didn’t have this order.”

Other customers would rather go back to the old way. After standing in line for hours, waiting for the doors to open, they don’t want to wait any longer in the freezing cold as other customers take their time shopping.

“They should just let everyone in at one time,” said Tiara Mann of the District, who waited 25 minutes after the doors opened to get in. “That way, we wouldn’t have been standing outside for so long. The lines didn’t make any sense.”

The new line strategy didn’t work everywhere. Chaos broke out at other stores across the country. In Los Angeles, a female shopper pepper sprayed about 20 other customers shortly after the doors opened to gain a competitive shopping edge, the Associated Press reported.

Gunfire erupted in Fayetteville, N.C., the AP reported. There were also fights that broke out in New York and Central Florida.

But the potential for chaos didn’t stop Ms. Mann, who spent most of Thanksgiving cooking and cleaning, from dragging herself over to Target at about 11 p.m. to grab the toys she knew her children would want for Christmas.

“I’m tired,” she admitted. “I’ve been cooking and cleaning, but I had to come here, because once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

She bought a pink digital camera for her daughter, while her son will get a boxing game modeled after the recent “Real Steel” movie and a “Transformers” action figure.

“This is entertainment,” she said. “Hours of entertainment. I’m going to be playing in there with them.”

• Tim Devaney can be reached at tdevaney@washingtontimes.com.

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