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Shoppers look for bargains at Toys R Us on Thanksgiving Day in New York City. The stores, which opened nationwide at 10 p.m., will remain open for 24 hours for Black Friday.
Retailers opened their doors earlier than ever this Black Friday, launching an aggressive campaign to get consumers into stores.
Analysts estimate this year will be better than last holiday season, which was one of the worst in recent memory. But it's still too soon to tell whether deep discounts and early-bird hours will give retailers the boost they are hoping for.
Early signs pointed to bigger crowds at many stores, including Best Buy, Sears and Toys R Us.
Buying For Me!
In an encouraging sign for retailers and for the economy, more shoppers appeared to be buying for themselves than last year, when such indulgences were limited. Lengthened hours that pushed some store openings into Thanksgiving also appeared to pay off.
Toys R Us, which drew in shoppers with 50 percent discounts on such toys as Buzz Lightyear and Barbies, was counting on getting an extra boost by opening 24 hours straight, starting at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving.
Macy's CEO Terry Lundgren said this was the first year the company opened its stores at 4 a.m. "We did look at all of our competitors and they were opening earlier and earlier, so we decided to open at 4 o'clock rather than 5 o'clock," he said.
He said that based on preliminary surveys, spending at Macy's may be up as much as 5 percent this year.
Brian Dunn, CEO of Best Buy Co., which started its holiday TV ads 11 days earlier this year than last year, reported customer counts were showing high single-digit percentage increase Friday morning compared with last year. He said shoppers were throwing in items like Blu-ray players to go with early-morning bargains that started at 5 a.m.
"Traffic was fast and furious. We started earlier and we have more TVs. I think both of these things helped,'' Dunn said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I do think there will be more self-gifting this year.''
Marshal Cohen, chief analyst for market research firm NPD, estimated that 15 percent of purchases so far on Friday were items for the shoppers themselves, up from about 9 percent last year on the same day. On Black Friday 2008, he estimated it dropped to about 5 percent. In good economic times, such purchases run about 26 percent, Cohen said.
Kevin Jones, a Black Friday first-timer, was at Walmart in Columbia, Md., to buy a 42-inch Emerson LCD television for $398 for his new apartment. "This year, I'm taking care of me first. I deserve a little gift,'' he said.
At the Best Buy at the Westfield mall in Los Angeles, Todd Barber said it's been a rough year and he felt like treating himself. "Are these Christmas presents? No these are ... mine," he said laughing.
Marketing In A Bad Economy
But Jackie Fernandez, an analyst with the accounting firm Deloitte, says it's much too early for rosy sales predictions.
Fernandez said that for most consumers, especially for families making less than $100,000 a year, the holidays are not going to be that jolly. "People are not spending, people are holding off on spending until absolutely necessary, and they are looking for good deals," she said.
Fernandez said retailers made deep discounts to draw customers in and it's unclear whether the increased sales will add to the bottom line.
The fierce battle for shoppers' wallets promises savings for those willing and able to buy amid an economy that's still worrying many.
There may be as many as 138 million shoppers in lines and stores Friday, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation.
"We are seeing light at the end of the tunnel in terms of an improving economy, but at this point we still need more jobs and more confidence in our consumers,"said Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation. "But certainly we are encouraged by the fact that people are willing to spend a little more this year."
Alison Paul with Deloitte says it looks like holiday spending will be up about 2 percent this year — not great, but a big improvement over recent years when Paul says there was nowhere to go but up. "It's kind of like, you can't fall off the floor. But that's good news for retailers because what it signals is the end of the downturn and the end of this sort of puritanical approach to the holidays," Paul said.
Paul says retailers who have taken full advantage of social networking are going to do better this year.
Best Buy for the first time has holiday marketing on Facebook, Twitter and two smart phone applications. Best Buy Vice President Shari Ballard said this could be the best Black Friday in years. "We're extraordinarily excited about it. We believe that there is a lot of pent-up consumer demand," she said.
Thanksgiving weekend is huge for retailers. In recent years, Black Friday has been the busiest shopping day of the year, according to data from research firm ShopperTrak. But it doesn't necessarily provide a complete forecast of holiday sales. In fact, shoppers seem to be procrastinating more every year, so the fate of the holiday season is increasingly down to the last few days.
Retailers do study buying patterns for the weekend to discern shoppers' mindset. This year, that means taking the measure of their willingness to spend just a little bit more.
Last year, the Thanksgiving shopping weekend accounted for 12.3 percent of overall holiday revenue, according to ShopperTrak. Black Friday made up about half of that.
'The American Way'
Black Friday began on Thanksgiving Day for Timothy Pineda, who started waiting in line at a Best Buy in Los Angeles on Thursday. He missed Thanksgiving dinner, but he said the deals made it worthwhile.
"I wanted to get laptops; you are saving like $200 on each laptop and this is a GPS and a TV," he said.
Kahdysja Semien said she wasn't going to miss any part of the turkey dinner or lose her place in line. "We paid someone $50 to hold our spot while we went and had Thanksgiving," she said.
After the dishes were done and a quick nap, she was back in line at 2 a.m. By 6 a.m., she had three discounted laptops: one for each of her kids.
Dozens of employees were trying to direct the crowds through long checkout lines. Most carts were overflowing with electronics, video games and HD TVs.
Security guard Todd Barber got in early and got everything he was looking for. "I got a laptop and I'm getting a home theater system and an iPod Touch — so was it worth it? Yeah, it was worth it," he said. "Now I'm going home and sleep. I'm done for the day."
Barber says he made sure his credit card was paid off in anticipation of Black Friday. It took him all year to get down to a zero balance.
"Now, I'm going to put it right back up there," he said laughing. "It's the American way."
NPR's Carrie Kahn contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press