Bargain hunters flocked to U.S. stores late Thursday and overnight Friday, searching for deals while fretting about their own shaky economic well-being.
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Some stores, looking to grab as big a piece as possible of what is expected to be a middling holiday shopping season, pushed post-Thanksgiving openings into Thursday evening or opened at midnight for the first time in years, getting a jump start on 'Black Friday', the traditional beginning to the U.S. holiday shopping season.
The strategy appeared to be working, judging from the 300 people who were lined up at a Toys R Us store on Long Island, New York before it opened at 9 p.m. on Thursday.
Shoppers were looking for bargains, but customers like James McBreaty were just what retailers wanted -- those who will also buy things beyond the "doorbuster" deals retailers offer to entice customers.
"We came for the deals but we were just discussing if we will buy things that aren't discounted," McBreaty, 32, a paralegal who was waiting with his wife Nicole, said. "Most likely the entire store isn't discounted but we're here so we'll probably buy some crap anyway."
In reality, the shopping period has been underway for some time as retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc and Toys R Us started early by offering layaway programs.
Retailers, from Amazon.com to Wal-Mart, were also offering online deals as Thanksgiving has become one of the biggest online shopping days of the year.
Retail executives and analysts are predicting a more competitive season than 2010. Unemployment still remains at 9 percent, European debt woes are weighing on the stock market and consumer confidence remains spotty.
The National Retail Federation, an industry trade group, forecast a 2.8 percent increase in sales for the November-December holiday season, down from the 5.2 percent increase in 2010.
Some shoppers even feel as though the recession has returned, even if it has not shown up in economic data.
"This year, we are going to do shopping but I don't think it is going to be as much shopping as we usually do. Because of the recession, we are not going to shop as much," Desiree Schoolfield, 49, a public service profession from Queens who was shopping at the Toys R Us in Times Square, said.
MIXED VIEWS ON EARLY START
Earlier on Thursday, a line outside a Best Buy in Union, N.J., included shoppers who had pitched a tent to stay warm until the store's midnight opening, according to Charles O'Shea, a Moody's senior retail analyst.
O'Shea said he was visiting various retailers to gauge consumer traffic. The big draws are deals, like t-shirts for $6, down from $12. Bargains like those will be a fixture for the season, he said.
"There is no question that the shopper is looking for deals," O'Shea said. "Nobody wants to feel like they're leaving money on the table, especially when they have less money now."
NRF expects 152 million people to hit stores this weekend, up 10.1 percent from last year.
To narrow the gap in store hours with rivals, discounter Target Corp, electronics chain Best Buy and department store chains Macy's Inc and Kohl's Corp will open at midnight - their earliest starts ever.
Those midnight openings drew online petition protests from store workers, and some shoppers also did not like the early openings.
"Tonight all the stores decided to open at midnight which is difficult when you're trying to enjoy dinner with your family," said Louis Clapper, 24, as he shopped at the Walmart in Farmingdale, New York. "Normally I leave the house at midnight, or 3-4 a.m. for a 5 a.m. opening. The stores are opening earlier and earlier."
At Macy's in Herald Square, several Occupy Wall Street activists chanted "boycott Macy's" and "stop supporting big corporations" even as 9,000 people lined up to shop at the store.
Others retailers, including J.C. Penney Co Inc, are opening early Friday morning as they did last year.
Wal-Mart started its Black Friday "doorbuster" deals on Thursday at 10 p.m. at its stores. Amazon.com Inc, not to be outdone, will offer its deals online at 9 p.m.
The knock-down-drag-out fight comes as the rebound in sales cooled in October, when many top chains like Macy's and Saks reported disappointing sales.
It will be even tougher for chains that have struggled with sales declines lately, like Gap and Penney.
Last year, after a strong Black Friday weekend, shoppers sat on their hands until closer to Christmas.