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A head start on Black Friday

By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 26, 2010; A16

The lines were shorter and there were no maddening battles for parking, unlike the chaos so often associated with Black Friday, but Thanksgiving Day proved to be a formidable bargain-hunting day for some consumers.

They were out to beat the crowds for good deals on electronics, clothes and toys - or simply to escape the house.

"We were looking for something to do in the morning while Mom cooks," said Joe Robinson, 35, as he loaded his 31/2 -year-old daughter, Sydney, into her car seat and a Samsung Blu-ray (on sale for $129) into his trunk at a Sears store in Bethesda. His wife, at home with 91/2-month-old twins, was busy cooking a turkey for 12 people.

Over the last five years, retail experts say, more stores have opened on Thanksgiving because they find that as long as they can get employees to work, it can give them a competitive advantage.

Last year, 18 million people nationwide said they shopped at stores that were open on Thanksgiving, according to the National Retail Federation, an industry trade group. And with poor retail sales for the last few years and a still-dragging recession recovery, some retailers saw being open as a sales boost.

This holiday season, retail sales are expected to rise 2.3 percent to $447 billion. That's up from last year, when sales grew by 0.4 percent, according to the National Retail Federation. Some major retailers, including Gap, Kmart, Old Navy and Sears, were among those who opened some of their stores on the Thanksgiving holiday.

Alison Paul, Deloitte's U.S. retail leader, said she believes the recent trend is a reaction to the recession.

"The last couple of years have been so bleak for retail, they were sensing this was going to be the year we were going to see consumers come back and spend," Paul said. "There's been a momentum over the last few months with better unemployment numbers coming out, promotions being offered before Halloween this year, and retailers didn't want to break that. By opening on Thanksgiving, retailers are saying, 'Let's give them every opportunity to be in the stores.' "

At a Sports Authority store on Rockville Pike, Rhoda Gatamah, a manager there, said the store was open last year on Thanksgiving and did about $40,000 in sales. On Thursday, she was hoping to hit $45,000. The store was open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. At 2:30 p.m., Gatamah said she hadn't tallied her sales for the day but had noticed that foot traffic into the store was down.

Why? She wasn't sure. "Maybe it is the weather, or maybe they're going to come on Black Friday." She hoped to hit $150,000 in sales on Friday - $50,000 more than what she did last year on Black Friday.

"Last year, life was tough and you heard people saying, 'That's too expensive,' " Gatamah said. "But this year, it seems like people are pulling out their credit cards and checkbooks more."

At the nearby Old Navy, Catherine Edwards, 43, said she was getting a jump on her holiday shopping. Accompanied by her daughter and a neighbor's preteen, she spent $95 at Old Navy - slightly more than she'd planned. After the trio's Old Navy stop, they drove up Rockville Pike looking for other open stores but ultimately decided to head home as they saw the crowds were starting to arrive.

Edwards said she'd cut back on getting extra toys, games and electronics for her three children since the fall, telling them they could wait for new things for the holidays. She runs two businesses from her Gaithersburg home. One, selling houses, has been up and down the last five years, but her college counseling firm has been steady, she said.

"I'm feeling okay about the economy and plan to spend a little more than last year, but we're not just getting anything you want - but more what you need, or maybe one special, special thing," she said.

For her 31/2-year-old-son, J.J., she was going to buy a $60 motorized garbage truck called Stinky.

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