By V. Dion Haynes, Ylan Q. Mui and Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 28, 2009; A01
Throngs of bargain hunters kicked off the holiday shopping season Friday, buying Paula Deen cookware, Zhu Zhu toy hamsters and flat-panel TVs. But even as they filled parking lots, waited in lines overnight and loaded shopping bags, they talked of restraint, drawing names for gifts, paying cash and buying the basics.
Retailers have been looking for signs of confidence, but on Friday some shoppers spoke of caution.
"You can't take anything for granted," said Barbara Martin, a diabetes educator visiting from Charlottesville, who was at Best Buy in Rockville at 5 a.m. looking for deals on a Global Positioning System device for her son and a flat-panel TV for her brother. "I'm not stupid enough to think I couldn't lose my job tomorrow. We're going to cut back on spending this year for the holidays by about 75 percent."
Patsy Montgomery, 57, of Newbury, Md., was shopping at Target in Waldorf. Business has been brutal at her floral shop in LaPlata, she said, forcing her to trim hours for her four employees to part time. "This has been the worst year in all the years I've been a florist," she said.
Rather than buying gifts for everyone -- her husband, two daughters, sons-in-law, grandchildren and other relatives -- she said, "we drew names. I've never done that. It's rough."
Victoria Martin was stocking up on winter coats for her six children at the new Forman Mills in Northeast Washington. She said sticking to a budget is especially important this year -- she lost her job as a security guard and had to take a lower-paying one.
"I'm making less and still have to provide for everyone," Martin said. That's tough because the children "still want everything they used to want."
According to Accenture, a consulting firm, thicker crowds were expected at the annual post-Thanksgiving Day tradition known as Black Friday. It said 52 percent of consumers would be out shopping compared with 42 percent last year. At Best Buy in Rockville, 514 people were waiting out in the cold when the doors opened at 5 a.m. Late-comers at the Target in Waldorf were unable to find parking once the doors opened at 5 a.m., and the crowds at Potomac Mills were so thick at 1 a.m. that shoppers were bumping into one another. The atmosphere was calm -- stores took safety measures after a crowd trampled a worker at a New York Wal-Mart last year.
The first hard sales numbers for Black Friday are not expected until Sunday. For the full holiday season, the National Retail Federation said it expects sales to fall 1 percent this year, to $437.6 billion, compared with a 3.4 percent decline last year. Many shoppers Friday said that -- despite having jobs and hearing projections of a recovery -- they were more uncertain about the economy this year than last. Their purchases, they said, would be curtailed.
They would buy for immediate family but not extended, they said, sticking to a list and forgoing any impulse buying, using cash instead of credit cards. And parents said they would buy gifts for the children, but not each other.
But retailers were looking for reasons to be optimistic -- healthy bottom lines and a sustained economic recovery require robust consumer spending. And some local store managers said they were encouraged by the turnout.
"Last year, retail had fallen off a cliff," said Karla Martin, a retail analyst in the San Francisco office of management consulting firm Booz & Company. "This year, they're not falling off a cliff, but they're clinging on the side of it with their fingernails."
Saks Fifth Avenue chief executive Stephen Sadove said shoppers should expect to see aggressive promotions during Black Friday weekend and throughout the holidays, but that retailers are no longer engaging in the widespread discounting that sapped profits last Christmas. Saks offered extra reward points to its most loyal customers Friday and slashed some prices by as much as 60 percent.
Many retailers have trimmed inventory -- Saks cut merchandise by about 20 percent -- in the hopes that by stocking fewer items, they can sell more at full price. That means many of the season's most popular items may sell more quickly. "The industry has adapted," he said.
Maria Russell, 33 and a stay-at-home mom from Vienna, stood in the middle of Macy's in Tysons Corner paging through the sale circular. "I have to look for the sale, otherwise I'll be out of the budget," she said, adding that she and her banker husband slashed their Christmas spending to $1,000 from $2,500 this year after he did not get an expected bonus.
At Westfield Montgomery mall, Billy Brush of Gaithersburg said he and his wife, Heather, would spend $300 to $400 on holiday gifts. They agreed they wouldn't put their gift spending on credit cards because they also had student loans.
"We just bought a house and realized with a mortgage you have to be frugal," said Billy Brush, 26, who works for a defense contractor.
Heather Brush's brother, who graduated from Gettysburg College with a business degree, has been living with the couple after a year of looking for a job in his field. He works as a host at a restaurant, making $10 an hour.
"With all that's going on in the economy, we're trying to tighten our belts just in case something were to happen," Billy Brush said. "The government can cut a contract whenever they want and I'd be without a job very quickly. We don't want to spend frivolously."
Staff writer Annie Gowen contributed to this report.