NEW YORK – Shoppers, who had snapped their wallets shut since September, flocked to stores before dawn Friday to grab deals on everything from TVs to toys on the traditional start of the holiday shopping season, feared to be the weakest in decades.
It was clear that despite the crowds that showed up for the discounts, shoppers' worries about the economy — massive layoffs, tightening credit and dwindling retirement accounts — tempered buying.
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Retailers extended their hours, some opening at midnight, and offered deals that promised to be deeper and wider than even the deep discounts that shoppers found throughout November.
Best Buy, which threw its doors open at 5 a.m. offered such specials as a 49-inch Panasonic plasma HDTV for $899.99 and a $189.99 GPS device by Garmin. Toys "R" Us was offering up to 60 percent discounts from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m.
Many consumers, clutching the store circulars, were focused on a few bargains Friday and said they were slashing their overall holiday budgets from a year ago as they juggle paying their rent and other bills while putting food on the table.
Even for the growing number of parents who were limiting their gift buying to just their children this year, financial troubles were forcing them to be stingy.
"I have never slept here before to save a few bucks, but with the economy so bad I thought that even a few dollars helps," said Analita Garcia of Falls Church, Va., who arrived at a local Best Buy store at 7 a.m. Thursday with 10 family members.
She bought a Dynax LCD 32-inch TV for $400, slashed from $500, along with an iPod and several DVDs.
"This year a lot of people I know won't be getting Christmas presents. I have to pay the rent and bills, and I have two little ones at home to think of," Garcia added.
At the Best Buy store in Syracuse, N.Y., a line snaked past stores and around walkways on the second floor of Carousel Center a few moments before the store's 5 a.m. opening — about eight hours after some people near the front of the line had arrived.
Rob Schoeneck, the mall's manager, estimated about 1,000 people were waiting for the electronics store to open and said the crowd was about the same size as a year ago.
Inside, Kira Carinci, 33, a teacher from Cicero, N.Y., searched for the $80 "Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock" video game and guitar controller bundle for her son but said she is more concerned about money than she was last holiday season. She said she had set aside a certain amount for Christmas spending.
"I don't usually save, so this year is a little different," she said.
By 3:43 a.m., about 50 people had lined up in preparation for the 5 a.m. opening at a Wal-Mart store in Cary, N.C. Shannon Keane, 38, of Cary, who arrived with her son, Miles, 13, at midnight, said she was buying only one item today: an iPod for her son.
"He really wanted this one thing," Keane said. "So we're here for this one thing."
Keane, who was recently laid off from her job at an insurance company, said she was on a budget this year because her unemployment checks were also helping support family in Colorado.
"I really can't focus on gifts," she said. "I have to focus more on helping them pay their bills. It's hard," she said of being a single mom on a small income. "I've always filled the tree. But you have to be honest. This year, I'll do the best I can."
Joyce and Kevin Kirk of Georgtown in southwest Ohio, who arrived at Kohl's at Eastgate Mall in suburban Cincinnati, at 4 a.m Friday, bought toys for the baby and clothing for her older children, mostly at 50 percent to 60 percent off.
She said they decided to focus more on the kids this year and cut down on gifts for other people. Her husband, a construction worker, wasn't getting enough work at his company and recently switched to another company.
"We just can't do as much this year because of the economy," said Joyce Kirk, who aims to cut her holiday budget to $1,000. She usually spent $3,000 to $4,000 on Christmas gifts.
Wayne Patty and his wife Patty Blalock, who arrived at a Kohl's store in Miramar, Fla., shortly after 4 a.m. Friday, said they were planning to spend $300 to $400 on each of their their five children, down from about $600 each a year ago.
They were buying mostly toys and clothing for their children, but for their 24-year-old daughter, they're planning a more practical gift: an appointment to the dentist because she doesn't have insurance.
"We're much more budgeted and regimented this year, versus last year, when there was more impulse spending," said Patty.
Black Friday received its name because it historically was the day when a surge of shoppers helped stores break into profitability for the full year.
But this year, with rampant promotions of up to 70 percent throughout the month amid a deteriorating economy, the power of this landmark day for the retail industry could be fading.
Still, while it isn't a predictor of holiday sales, the day after Thanksgiving is an important barometer of people's willingness to spend for the rest of the season. And particularly this year, analysts will dissect how the economy is shaping buying habits in a season that many analysts predict could see a contraction in spending from a year ago.
Last year, the Thanksgiving shopping weekend of Friday through Sunday accounted for about 10 percent of overall holiday sales, according to ShopperTrak RCT Corp.
The group hasn't released estimates for Black Friday sales this year, but experts believe it will remain one of the season's biggest selling days, even as shoppers remain deliberate in their spending.
"This is definitely a hit-and-run mentality," said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group. "They are running in, grabbing the deal and running out. This is what I am seeing this morning."