Black Friday deals draw robust crowds

Though many mega-retailers opted to kick off the holiday shopping season on Thanksgiving this year, Black Friday still drew millions of shoppers to malls and other retail outlets across the country.

The impact of the earlier start time for many shoppers turned the hunt for deals into more of a marathon than a sprint.

By the time Black Friday kicked off at midnight, Marge Wyman planned to already be more than four hours into a 12-hour shopping expedition. The Ellicott City resident got started at Toys R Us in Columbia on Thursday evening. Next on her agenda were Wal-Mart, Kohl’s and at least four other stores.

The International Council of Shopping Centers estimated that more than 80 million bargain hunters were out Friday, twice as many as on Thanksgiving.

It will be a few days before retailers know whether they were able to overcome the tepid projections on holiday sales, but there was some initial optimism. “I’m actually seeing more activity this year” than last year, Ramesh Swamy, a retail analyst who works at Deloitte, said. “We could be heading towards a very good weekend.”

Facing dual challenges — a slow economy and competition from online retailers — brick-and-mortar retailers pulled out all the stops to attract customers. In addition to starting earlier, some of them said they would match online prices and offered staggered deals throughout the day in the hopes customers would linger and make an impulse purchase.

But that might not have been enough, analysts said. “We think there’ll be some modest growth this year, but it won’t be as strong as it was last year,” said Maggie Taylor, a vice president at Moody’s. “Customers have become more cautious. They are worried about tax increases that might affect their discretionary spending.”

Whatever the outcome, at shopping centers across the country there was little evidence of the mayhem for which Black Friday is notorious. Retailers set up detailed plans to funnel shoppers to the most popular deals, in some cases giving out place-holder tickets for bargain hunters who stood in line for hours.

“It was a really pleasant shopping experience. There was no traffic — people were able to get to the parking lots. It wasn’t the hectic Black Friday rush that people have come to know,” said Tom Aiello, a division vice president for Sears Holdings.

The crowd at Tysons Corner Center appeared to be dominated by teens, with stores catering to that age group drawing the longest lines. The queue outside H&M appeared to be the longest, with hundreds of people snaking down the mall’s long, main corridor. Security guards kept a watchful eye on shoppers as a store associate bellowed through a bullhorn: “Single file, please!”

Other teen-oriented retailers drew big crowds at Tysons, too. At Urban Outfitters, a group of high school seniors from W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax County was near the head of the line. They had arrived at 8 p.m. Thursday to nab a prime spot for the store’s midnight opening.

“My mom thinks I’m going crazy,” said Erin Kim, one of the students.

At Columbia Mall, a similar scene unfolded. Teenagers as well as 20-somethings flocked to such stores as Express, Aeropostale and Aldo and emerged toting shopping bags. And although a throng of shoppers descended on the mall’s Victoria’s Secret shortly after the store opened its doors at midnight, the Talbots across the hall was nearly empty, save for a lone clerk folding sweaters.

Wal-Mart kicked off its Black Friday offerings at 8 p.m. Thursday but saved some deals for Friday morning, prompting customers to spend many hours in the store. Khulood Alhosani and her cousin, Sahar Neisi, played Uno and tic-tac-toe with other customers at a Wal-Mart in Fairfax. As they waited for the 5 a.m. round of specials, they watched as some shelves were wiped clean.

“Some of the areas in the store looked like they’d been attacked by a pack of wolves,” Neisi said.

Maketta Batts showed up at Wal-Mart’s first doorbuster sale Thursday evening to buy an Emerson 32-inch high-definition television for $148.

Once she was there, she was lured by a second deal — on a 50-inch TV that wasn’t going on sale until Friday morning. She purchased the first TV, packed it into her car and then got in line for the bigger one.

By the time she left the store Friday morning with both TVs, Batts said she was ready “to go home and go to bed. I don’t know whether I’m coming or going.”

In addition to attracting hordes of customers, some Wal-Mart stores drew small numbers of protesters aiming to call attention to what they say are unfair labor practices. One protest outside a store in Prince George’s County drew hundreds of demonstrators.

Abha Bhattarai, J. Freedom du Lac and Rebecca Cohen contributed to this report.

Sarah Halzack is a reporter and Web editor for Capital Business. She covers the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. She occasionally writes for other sections at the Post, most frequently in the form of dance reviews, dance features, book reviews and obituaries.
Steven Overly covers the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital in the Washington region for The Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication. In that capacity, he has written about start-up struggles, investment trends and major drug discoveries.
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