Nation’s retailers usher in holiday season with expanded hours, generous discounts

Published 8:08 pm Friday, November 24, 2006

Bargain shoppers, many braving frigid temperatures, headed to the nation’s stores and malls before the sun rose on Friday to nab specials on everything from toys to flat-screen TVs as the holiday shopping season officially opened.

In a slowing but still steady economy, retailers heightened their pitch to shoppers with expanded hours, generous discounts and free money in the form of gift cards. A growing number of stores and malls threw open their doors at midnight to jump-start the season. CompUSA Inc. and BJ’s Wholesale Club Inc. even opened on Thanksgiving for the first time to grab customer dollars before the competition does.

“Retailers are doing more to get consumers into the stores earlier this year,” said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America’s Research Group, based in Charleston, S.C.

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At a Wal-Mart store in Cincinnati, Gary Miller, a 45-year-old computer programmer, was on the hunt for a 20-inch LCD television that he had seen advertised online.

“My wife sent me out for this one,” he said, pointing to the television in his shopping cart. “But then I saw this one (a 20-inch conventional TV) for $85 and said, what the heck, I’ll get that one, too.”

Meanwhile, Monica Midkiff, a 27-year-old homemaker from Peebles, Ohio, said she got up at 3:30 a.m. to go to Wal-Mart for a VTech game system.

“They usually cost about $60, but this was on sale for $30. That’s a deal,” she said.

Midkiff said she was on her way next to KB Toys and Toys “R” Us while her husband took care of their five children. She said she didn’t mind the crowded stores on Friday morning.

“That place was crazy — a madhouse,” she said.

Also at the Wal-Mart in Cincinnati was Clint Stapleton, 20, a construction worker from Mount Orab, who said he was happy with the deal he got on one of Wal-Mart’s featured items, a 32-inch LCD TV. He said he paid $630 for a TV that usually costs about $1,000.

“After I got that, I said, that’s enough, but I think I’ll still look for an Xbox somewhere,” Stapleton said.

In Albany, Ga., Cheryl Haley, 37, was among the 300 people lined up outside a Circuit City store when it opened at 5 a.m.

“This is the only thing on my little boy’s list,” said Haley, of Albany, Ga., pointing to the store circular advertising a $299 laptop. “I couldn’t pay $800 for it.”

She and her sister, Wendy Blount, 35, of nearby Lee County, argued over who earned the spot at the head of the line.

“I drove her here, so I’m first,” Blount said.

Eric Gordon, 30, of Albany, arrived half an hour before the store opened — far too late to get one of the limited number of bargain computers.

“I should have stayed in bed and shopped online,” he said. He noted it was his first Black Friday shopping experience.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retailer, which promised its most aggressive price strategy ever this holiday season, is using heavily discounted TVs, such as a Viore 42-inch plasma TV for $988, to attract shoppers to its doors for its 5 a.m. opening on Black Friday, so named because it is traditionally when a surge of shopping makes stores profitable for the year.

Meanwhile, Sears Holdings Corp.’s Sears, Roebuck and Co., which opened at 5 a.m. Friday, one hour earlier than a year ago, was giving out $10 reward cards for the first 200 shoppers who showed up. Other early bird specials include Protron 37-inch LCD HDTVs for $949.99 and 50 percent discounts on many toys. At Sears Holdings’ Kmart stores, shoppers will find 50 percent discounts on men’s and women’s outerwear as part of its early morning doorbusters.

While Black Friday officially starts holiday shopping, it’s generally no longer the busiest day of the season — that honor now falls to the last Saturday before Christmas. But stores see Black Friday as setting an important tone to the overall season: What consumers see that day influences where they will shop for the rest of the season.

Last year, total Black Friday sales dipped 0.9 percent to $8 billion from the year before, dampened by deep discounting, according to Shopper Trak RCT Corp., which tracks total sales at more than 45,000 mall-based retail outlets. For the Thanksgiving weekend, total sales rose just 0.4 percent to $16.8 billion.

Still, last year merchants ended up meeting their holiday sales projections, helped by a last-minute buying surge and post-Christmas shopping.

This year, analysts expect robust holiday sales gains for the overall retail industry, though the pace is expected to be slower than a year ago. The National Retail Federation projects a 5 percent gain in total holiday sales for the November-December period, less than the 6.1 percent in the year-ago period.

Meanwhile, the International Council of Shopping Centers estimates sales at stores open at least a year will rise 3 percent in the November-December period, less than last year’s 3.6 percent.