Shoppers swarmed the region's stores yesterday -- about 39,000 by noon at Potomac Mills alone -- as the shortest holiday shopping season in six years began amid grim forecasts about crimped consumer spending.
A string of surveys dating to September suggest Americans will be cutting back somewhat on spending because of concerns about jobs, the economy and the stock market. Still, yesterday was a day of long lines and packed parking lots. About 44 percent of consumers polled by America's Research Group recently said they planned to shop yesterday. That's 8 percentage points higher than the past decade's norm, the group said.
A big draw for many: discounts, and lots of them. Not everyone yesterday was convinced the price cuts were great, or even better than last year's. But they were good enough to get Sandy and Jay Estrain into Best Buy in Rockville, where they dropped $1,300 on gifts for their eight grandchildren.
The Silver Spring couple waited in line nearly an hour, their blue shopping cart filled with a 13-inch television and video player, a DVD player, and PlayStation 2 games.
"We hadn't expected to buy as much," said Jay Estrain, 68, an industrial chemical salesman. "But it's on sale."
While it might seem these days that everything is always on sale, some stores yesterday put the spotlight on prices even more, with early-bird specials, coupons and even freebies.
For instance, KB Toys was running a sale from 5 a.m. until noon. At the Mall in Columbia, Farida Tinker bought a $17.99 skateboard ramp (the last in stock), an $8 Sorry board game and other marked-down items after standing in a checkout line that circled the store.
Tinker, who has two sons, has spent a few hundred dollars on gifts so far. Unlike last year, she is carefully reading the newspaper sales circulars, now that her husband has been laid off from his job as a technology research engineer at Hewlett-Packard Co. And she worries that her own tech job might also be on the line.
Normally, Tinker might not brave the day-after-Thanksgiving crowds, she said, but she was "trying to save money this year."
Some people were out yesterday because the short stretch between Thanksgiving and Christmas -- six days shorter than last year -- means they won't have many other chances. Lori and Phil Reiter, for instance, don't have another day off scheduled until Christmas. She's a cashier at the Costco in Manassas; he's a store manager.
The couple -- she works nights and he works days -- had their three children (ages 3 months to 3 years) with them in line at Bath & Body Works in Fair Oaks.
"Today is our deadline," Lori Reiter said. "Everything must get done. We don't have a choice."
Economists and pollsters who closely track consumer behavior caution against reading too much into yesterday's crowds. Black Friday -- traditionally the day when retailers know whether they'll go into the black for the year -- hasn't been the busiest shopping day of the season for years. Thanks to procrastinators, that honor has gone to the Saturday before Christmas.
Still, the day tends to draw the most devoted of shoppers.
"No matter how gloomy the forecast or reality, it's always true that people will be out shopping on that day," said Ira Kalish, chief economist at consulting firm Retail Forward. "It's not in my mind an indicator of anything."
Kalish predicts this selling season will be a weak one because the labor market is tight, consumer debt is high and stock prices are still low. Value-oriented retailers will do the best, he said. Those offering coupons, early-bird specials and the like may also snag lots of customers. But those promotions will cut into the retailers' bottom line.
In addition, just because shoppers show up at the stores, that doesn't mean they're going to spend.
A poll released by the Gallup Organization yesterday found that 25 percent of Americans say they will spend less on Christmas gifts this year than they did in 2001. They are also likely to knock someone off their shopping list, a survey by research firm RoperASW found.
C. Britt Beemer, chairman and founder of America's Research Group in Charleston, S.C., said consumers are less likely to pamper themselves this season.
In the 1990s, about a third of the dollars consumers spent during the holidays were spent on themselves, Beemer said. But this year, the truncated season, worries about the economy and a lack of must-have merchandise will dissuade them, he said, especially because many people do not expect a raise anytime soon.
"That's why retailers are going to have a hard time hitting grand-slam numbers," Beemer said.
Beth Powner of Richmond said she plans to reduce her holiday spending by $300 to $400 from the $1,500 she spent last year. She and some of her friends agreed to meet for lunch rather than buy gifts for each other.
"Since 9/11 my priorities have changed a lot," said Powner, as she eyed the merchandise at the Appalachian Spring gift shop in Rockville yesterday. "I realize that spending time with people is more important than getting things."
Marta Garzon, a Spanish teacher who was shopping at the Best Buy in Rockville, said she plans to cut her shopping list in half and buy only for her closest relatives.
"We'll be spending less and saving more this season," she said. "We're just not sure what's going to happen with jobs and the economy."
The economic picture isn't totally gloomy. The stock market has had several strong weeks. Personal income was up in October, and retail sales were the strongest they've been since April.
Gale and Mike Kostoff of Oakton say they are feeling good about their finances.
Mike Kostoff, 45, dropped about $1,000 on clothes for himself at Fair Oaks yesterday. Gale Kostoff, a real estate agent, was in a rush to buy, wrap and send gifts to out-of-state relatives in time for Christmas.
"We worry about the economy, but around the margins," said Gale Kostoff, 46. "Christmas is not a time to cut back."
Silvia and Alexander Carrillo of Reston have added more people to their shopping list since last year.
Silvia Carrillo, a claims analyst who was shopping at Fair Oaks, carried her list on two index cards. Nearly all 22 names were scratched off -- including her cat's.
"Originally, we said we'd only buy for the kids," she said. "But it's impossible. We're just going to buy for everyone."
Not all who were out yesterday planned to buy. Wendy Vigil, 16, tagged along with her foster mother simply to revel in the atmosphere. Wake-up time: 4 a.m.
Her foster mother, Dawn Miatech-Plaska of Springfield, wanted to get to KB Toys at Fair Oaks in time for its 5 a.m. opening. Stops at Wal-Mart (for a Power Jeep for her son) and Best Buy were also on the agenda.
Vigil was in awe of the power-shopping stint, which was still going strong by noon.
"It's my first time shopping after Thanksgiving Day," she said. "It's cool seeing all those crazy people running from to place to place and waiting in long lines."
Staff writer Sabrina Jones contributed to this report.