Extended shopping hours and extraordinary discounts are some of the ploys merchants are using to coax consumers back into spending, as Black Friday kicked off the holiday shopping season.
After cinching up their purse strings over the past year, newly-confident shoppers awoke before dawn to hunt the stores and malls for unprecedented bargains.
Merchants are running deeper promotions that start earlier than last year, allowing shoppers to haggle for prices, and offering some unconventional enticements.
Lorna Cole of Raymond, N.H., stayed up all night to prepare for her trip to KB Toys in Hooksett, N.H.
"I didn't go to sleep," she said. "You can't sleep on a night like this."
Cole's insomnia was beneficial: 150 people were anxiously waiting for the store to open at 5 a.m. Cole and her friends shopped strategically to get the best deals. One woman went directly to the registers to wait in line, while three others acted as runners to gather items for the group.
The Toys R Us in Little Rock, Ark., drew a crowd of 300 before the retailer opened its doors at 6 a.m. Elizabeth Phifer wanted one item: a Diva Starz pet plush dog at 16 percent off for her 8-year-old daughter.
"I'm way back here at the end of the line and I'm nervous I'm not going to get it," she said.
Outside a Sears, Roebuck & Co. in Syracuse, N.Y., close to 100 people huddled in their cars, then hurried inside when the doors were unlocked at 6 a.m.
"It is early, but the prices are too good to pass up. What I save here, I can use to buy more presents," said Diane Risley, a nurse who arrived at 5:15 a.m. to buy clothes and a portable CD player for her teenage son.
Meanwhile, at a Super Kmart store in Atlanta, Kim Arorash of Bermuda, bought Powerpuff Girls underwear for her 3-year-old daughter. She noted she was "going to be a little bit wiser in my choices, a little more conscientious. It's smarter to have a little something left over, I think."
Faced with a drop-off in consumer spending that only got worse after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, retailers are doing whatever they can to jump-start the holiday season with expanded shopping hours and bigger discounts.
For the first time, Kmarts will be open 66 hours straight, from 5 a.m. Friday until 11 p.m. Sunday. Sears' 6 a.m. start time Friday was an hour earlier than last year.
Kmart opened the season with $49 leather jackets and $39 George Foreman grills, with a bonus free grill.
Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, was offering a number of early bird specials. Deals include $199 Quasar camcorders and $74 Apex combination DVD and CD players, according to Tom Williams, company spokesman. Sears slashed prices in half on a number of items.
But getting consumers to spend isn't easy. Many shoppers, nervous about job security and political uncertainties, are re-evaluating their priorities and plan to pare back their holiday spending.
"Category discounts will not work this time around," said Philip H. Kowalczyk, vice president of Kurt Salmon Associates, a retail consulting firm. "It has to be the must-have, sharply priced items that create excitement."
The National Retail Federation has predicted that total holiday retail sales, excluding restaurant and auto sales, will rise 2.5 percent to 3 percent from last year, to roughly $206 billion. That would make this year's retail growth the worst since 1990, when sales were basically unchanged.
Last holiday season, retailers rang up $201 billion in sales, up 3.9 percent from 1999.
The online retailing sector, which officially kicked off its holiday season more than a week ago to account for shipping time, is expecting a drop-off from the explosive sales gains of past years.
Internet research firm Jupiter Media Metrix has predicted a relatively modest 11 percent gain in holiday online sales, to $11.9 billion. Between 1999 and last year, holiday online sales had jumped by a whopping 50 percent.
There is a bright spot for store-based retailers worried about a weak start to the holiday season: The Thanksgiving weekend is no longer the busiest period of the season. Last year, the weekend accounted for only 8.6 percent of holiday sales.
Last-minute shoppers provide the biggest chunk of revenue, with 30.9 percent of last year's holiday sales coming in the last week before Christmas, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.