(Michelle Felter, Staff)
In a bid to grab shoppers earlier on the traditional start to the holiday shopping season, a number of stores including Old Navy, Toys R Us and Sears opened on Thursday's Thanksgiving holiday.
Toys R Us, which drew in shoppers with 50 percent discounts on such toys as Buzz Lightyear and Barbies, was counting on getting an extra boost by opening 24 hours straight, starting at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving.
Toys R Us' 10 pm. opening at its flagship store in Times Square drew 1,500 shoppers, says CEO Jerry Storch.
"Where there are bargains, there are people looking to gobble them up," said Marshal Cohen, chief analyst for market research firm NPD. Though people were mostly sticking to their lists, some were picking up small extras. However, "the consumer is still very calculated."
Patricia Lopez, 32, a receptionist from Queens, N.Y., was in line at Toys R Us in New York's Times Square Thursday night. The earlier hours were an enticement.
"I thought, good, we'll come here and I won't have to go tomorrow." But she still planned to get up at 6 to hit more sales. Lopez said she feels better about her finances.
"The economy got people a little scared so they started to save," she said. "I think I feel a little better this year than last year. I had just started with my job but now I'm more advanced. I feel a little better now."
Diehards started lining up at the Target department store on Chicago's North side at 10 p.m. Thursday, and by the time doors opened at 4, the line was almost 600 people deep.
In an encouraging sign for retailers and for the economy, more shoppers appeared to be buying for themselves than last year, when such indulgences were limited.
During the disastrous 2008 Christmas, shell-shocked shoppers stuck to buying gifts for others.
Cohen, who had a team of consultants monitoring 11 regions in the country, estimated that 15 percent of purchases so far on Friday were items for themselves, up from about 9 percent last year on the same day. On Black Friday 2008, he estimated it dropped to about 5 percent. In good economic times, such purchases run about 26 percent, Cohen said.
"I would not go out in the cold for family," joked Kat Reyngold, 35, who wanted a 40-inch Westinghouse TV on sale at the Chicago Target for $299.
Bad weather, however, could put a damper on sales. Rain was falling or threatening much of the East Coast, and early morning temperatures were in the teens and 20s throughout the Midwest and mountain states, according to the National Weather Service.
The fierce battle for shoppers' wallets promises savings for those willing and able to buy amid an economy that's still worrying many.
The good news is that retailers are heading into the season with some momentum after a solid start to November. Shoppers who can afford it are buying more nonessentials, like jewelry and luxury goods. That's helping to lift their spirits about the holiday season, which is expected to generate revenue gains modestly higher than a year ago.
Still, nearly 15 million are unemployed, and concerns about job security cloud consumer confidence. Spending may be picking up but has not returned to pre-recession levels.
So, retailers are pushing deals on basics as well as offering discounts on more deluxe items, from bigger flat-panel TVs to more elaborate play sets.
"It's a dogfight between retail companies," said Chris Donnelly, a senior executive in consulting group Accenture's retail practice. "This year is the first time that there's a little more money in the marketplace so they're being more aggressive about getting the last dollar. At the end of the day, they're going to outweigh people who are pulling back."
Many stores pushed more exclusive deals online on Thursday in a bid to rope in shoppers before Black Friday. It apparently worked. According to IBM's Coremetrics, online sales soared 33 percent on the holiday compared with Thanksgiving 2009.
Consumers began shopping earlier in the day on Thursday compared with a year earlier. And the average order was $182.74, up from $159.81 on last year's Thanksgiving Day.
Thanksgiving weekend is huge for retailers. In recent years, so-called Black Friday has been the busiest shopping day of the year, according to data from research firm ShopperTrak. But it doesn't necessarily provide a complete forecast of holiday sales. In fact, shoppers seem to be procrastinating more every year, so the fate of the holiday season is increasingly down to the last few days before Christmas.
Retailers do study buying patterns for the weekend to discern shoppers' mindset. This year, that means taking the measure on their willingness to spend just a little bit more.
Last year, the Thanksgiving shopping weekend accounted for 12.3 percent of overall holiday revenue, according to ShopperTrak. Black Friday made up about half of that.
Shoppers swarmed Washington Square, a mall in Tigard, Oregon, that opened at midnight for the first time.
Jennifer Mishler and her mother, Lynn Bieberdorf, lined up at the mall's J.C. Penney at Washington Square mall.
Bieberdorf said she also had finished most of her holiday shopping, picking up gifts for her grandchildren in October and November. Tonight they were looking for some stocking stuffers and other small items.
"Other than that, it's to enjoy the madness," Mishler said.