By Danielle Douglas and J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 26, 2010; 10:23 PM
The traditional holiday shopping season kicked off Friday with retailers reporting longer lines than last year and customers saying they were more willing to spend, boosting hopes that the coming weeks could give the economy a badly needed nudge.
Although some shoppers said they were more eager than a year ago to trade up - for pricier electronics, for example - and even to spend on themselves, they remained cautious about parting with too much of their money.
Still, parking lots filled, traffic backed up and customers searched for discounts throughout the Washington region on Black Friday as streams of shoppers supported industry predictions of an upbeat retail season.
At the Gap at Tysons Corner Center, where signs announced "50% OFF EVERYTHING," there was a little bit of jostling - "I saw that toddler's peacoat first!" - and a lot of messy merchandising. Store employees couldn't refold and rehang clothes as quickly as shoppers picked through them in search of the deal of the day.
"This is crazy," a woman cried as she saw the 60-deep line at the register. "Let's get out of here." She dropped a handful of items on a table of sweaters and bolted.
An hour before the half-off-everything sale ended at Urban Outfitters, there were four dozen people waiting outside.
"We've been at capacity since midnight," said Jamie Harrison, a department manager. The line had stretched from the store into a nearby mall parking lot two hours before the "midnight madness" opening. "It's definitely a lot busier than last year," she said.
The retail industry projected that about 138 million people would go shopping over the long weekend, up from 134 million last year.
One of the busiest shopping days of the year, Black Friday bears that name because it is traditionally when many retailers go from losing money to making a profit. The National Retail Federation estimates Black Friday sales figures but won't release them until Sunday.
"We kind of have a barbell effect going on," said Janet Hoffman, managing director of Accenture's retail practice. "We see luxury retailers rebounding and discounters putting compelling offers out there to get the people looking for value."
By noon, the crowds swelled at Montgomery Mall in Bethesda, where shoppers talked of driving around in the lots 20 minutes to find a parking space. There were deep lines at cash registers. There were no empty seats in the food court.
But Black Friday shoppers were mostly undeterred.
"We are finding sales, but not as deeply discounted as we expected," said Ernie Jarvis, 48, of the District, holding one bag and still shopping. He had postponed buying his wife's gift a few moment's earlier: The line was too long.
Still, he saw his experience as a reason for optimism. "I think that it's a good sign that the economy is on the road to recovery," he said. "Last year, I think there was still uncertainty."
Consumer spending, which accounts for two-thirds of the nation's economic output, is the key to a recovery. In recent months, there have been promising signs that U.S. consumers are becoming more confident. Personal consumption rose at a 2.8 percent annual rate in the third quarter, the strongest growth since the end of 2006.
But few forecasters believe that spending will accelerate dramatically, because consumers are being restrained by a weak job market and the need to pay down debts accumulated during the boom years.
The National Retail Federation projects that shoppers will spend an average of $688.87 during the holidays this year, a modest increase from last year's $681.83. Notably, the group expects consumers to increase the amount they spend on themselves by 8 percent this year to $107.50.
"I bought perfume, a watch, these really cool over-the-knee black boots - those are for me," said Adele Richer, 46, of Baltimore, standing outside Garage, a girls clothing store, in Tysons Corner Center. "When a chick goes by a shoe store, it's over," she said. "Those boots were calling to me, crying, saying, 'Take me home.' "
Retailers have been putting more emphasis than ever on their online businesses this year. Shoppers preferring to stay in their pajamas could pick up many of the same in-store Black Friday deals online at midnight, while a wealth of countdown sales leading up to the day were exclusive to the Web.
If the e-commerce sales figures recorded so far are an accurate gauge, online shopping will play a significant role this holiday season. For the first 21 days in November, e-commerce spending rose 13 percent year-over-year to $9 billion, according to ComScore. The research firm is expecting an 11 percent growth in online sales to $32.4 billion for the holiday period overall.
Retailers have been aggressive in their ploys to get people to part with their money, leaking Black Friday deals weeks ahead of schedule or hosting flash sales in countdowns to the big day.
J.C. Penney ratcheted up its deals with more than 300 doorbusters - items on steep discount for a limited time. Toys R Us upped its doorbusters by 25 percent and added 28 more pages of deals to its catalogue.
"There is a little more willingness this year to open up the pocketbook and buy more-expensive presents," observed Gerald Storch, chairman and chief executive of Toys R Us. "Customers are still always focused on value, but they are feeling more relaxed and willing to get that 'wow' gift."
Tom Aiello, a spokesman for Sears Holdings, said shoppers have been taking advantage of in-store pickup of items purchased online. "When we look back at holiday 2010, we're going to see buy online/pickup was one of the biggest trends," he said, noting a particular interest among consumers for the electronic deals up for grabs.
Consumers, as they do practically every year, were showing up en masse for the doorbusting electronics deals.
Glorious Bazemore was on her way to work when she decided to take just a peek inside the Best Buy in Columbia Heights.
"My family and friends tell me I need to have Blu-ray," she said. Now she will. Bazemore, a 59-year-old Petworth resident, had three players stacked in her cart. She's looking only for good bargains and might pull back on her gift spending this year. "I'm monitoring how I spend," she said.
Many shoppers remained restrained, aware of the sluggish economy.
Tawana Rogers left the Macy's in downtown Washington shortly after midday with two large shopping bags in hand. She'd checked off a few items on her Christmas list, which she said was shorter than in the past.
"Because of the economy, you don't really have the money to shop the way you want," she said. "[I'm] knocking people off the Christmas list this year."
Staff writers Donna St. George, Jia Lynn Yang, Steven Overly and Neil Irwin contributed to this report.