Ready, set, shop: Stores open doors to throngs for traditional start of holiday buying season

By Anne Dinnocenzio, AP
Friday, November 27, 2009

Rush starts as holiday shopping season revs up

The nation’s retailers ushered in the traditional start of the holiday shopping season on Friday with expanded hours and deep discounts on everything from toys to TVs to lure crowds of shoppers.

A number of stores, including Walmart and many Old Navy locations, opened on Thanksgiving, hoping to make the most of the extra hours. Toys R Us opened most of its stores just after midnight Friday.

Online sellers also pushed to grab a piece of the action, pushing deals on Thursday and even earlier in the week.

At the Toys R Us store in Manhattan’s Times Square, people lined up 200 deep in anticipation of the midnight opening — five hours earlier than a year ago. Some were tourists who had jumped in line after watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade; others were New Yorkers wanting to get a good deal on game systems or get their hands on this year’s toy craze, Zhu Zhu Pets robotic hamsters.

Juan Almanzor, 30, and Maria Lopez, 30, were in line at 7 p.m. Thursday.

“Why come late?” Juan Almanzor said. He said they were here for “whatever you can get,” including the Zhu Zhu Pets for their children.

“It’s cute, its cuddleable. It’s just like the real one,” he said.

Ashley Echevarria, from the Bronx, was in line for Christmas toys, including electronics, for her 7-year-old daughter.

“We didn’t think it would be this long. It’s the way the economy is.” She appreciated the 70 percent off deals on the Sony PS1 game system and the Nintendo Wii.

Shaworne Smith-Manuel, 32, who lives on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, said she came for the sales. “Because of the economy you’ve got to get the most for the money,” she said.

Smith-Manuel plans to buy such items as the Xbox 360 game console, arts and crafts, G.I . Joe and Transformer toys for her children.

After suffering the worst sales decline in several decades last holiday season, the good news is that the retail industry is heading into the Christmas selling period armed with lean inventories and more practical goods on their shelves that reflect shoppers’ new psyche.

Still, with unemployment at 10.2 percent and consumers still struggling with tight credit, many analysts expect that total holiday sales will be at best about even from a year ago.

Optimism was rising in early fall as shoppers came to life, but stores have seen a sales slowdown since right after Halloween, putting merchants more on edge.

“There are going to be ebbs and flows,” said Marshal Cohen, chief retail industry analyst at NPD Group Inc., a market research firm, noting financial challenges among shoppers.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retailer, has lures like deeply discounted TVs like 42-inch plasma Emerson HDTVs for $448, and other electronics like $78 Magnavox Blu-ray disc players, for the early morning specials that started at 5 a.m.

The nation’s largest electronics chain, Best Buy Co., which opened its doors at 5 a.m., had such deals as $999.99 Samsung 46-inch flat-panel TVs, a savings of $700; and Sony laptops for $479.97, a savings of $180.

With the early morning specials limited, crowd control is expected to be a big focus for merchants this year in the aftermath of the death of a Wal-Mart worker at a Long Island store during last year’s Black Friday shopping madness.

Wal-Mart kept most of its stores open through the night to prevent such mad dashes.

Rival Target Corp., which opened at 5 a.m. Friday, is spreading hot items throughout the store to make sure customers have space to shop, as it has done in the past.

The promotional blitz typical for the traditional start of the holiday shopping season has high stakes for retailers who’ve suffered through a year of sales declines. It’s also important for the broader economy, which could use a kickstart from consumer spending.

Black Friday gets its name because traditionally was the day when huge crowds would push stores into “the black,” or profitability. But the weekend doesn’t provide a forecast for the rest of the season, which accounts for as much as 40 percent of annual sales and profits for many stores.

Still, retailers closely study buying patterns for the Thanksgiving weekend to gauge shoppers’ mindset — what kinds of items they’re buying, what deals are luring them.

Stores need to perform well for the traditional start because chances are slim they’ll be able to make up for lost sales for the rest of the season.

AP Retail Writer Mae Anderson contributed to this report in New York City.

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