Earlier Black Friday start appears to be a hit for local shoppers
Christie Concepcion of Seven Fields in Butler County sets her shopping bags down in front of the Victoria's Secret at The Mall at Robinson to check her phone messages Friday.
Black Friday shoppers duck under the opening door of a Sears store at Simon Property Group Inc.''s Great Lakes Mall in Mentor, Ohio, U.S., on Friday, Nov. 25, 2011. Black Friday, traditionally the biggest U.S. shopping day of the year, got off to its earliest start ever as retailers tried to woo shoppers with discounts and early store openings.
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Timing was everything for Black Friday shoppers looking to improve their personal economic outlook with cut-rate deals.
Hundreds lined up outside Toys 'R' Us stores in the region by 9 p.m. Thursday for deals on toys and electronics, while others bundled up against the chill until Best Buy, Target and Kohl's opened their doors at midnight. Mall stores opened at intervals through the night, triggering outbreaks of craziness like the one at 3:30 a.m., when more than 150 shoppers rushed the Victoria's Secret store in Monroeville to buy bras and yoga pants.
Once the first rushes ended, the flow of bodies eased. By 7 a.m. Friday, shoppers in Robinson Town Centre were browsing crowd-free stores.
"This is incredibly wonderful," said Gary Strieter, 69, of Plum, who was at Best Buy in search of a 46-inch TV. Mr. Strieter had made the mistake of lining up outside a Best Buy at 4 a.m. two years ago to get a computer for his granddaughter and there wasn't anything he needed badly enough to do that again.
The calm, he said, was a welcome alternative from the mayhem of years past.
Mayhem was still an element in this year's unofficial holiday shopping season launch, with The Associated Press reporting pepper-spray injuries in Los Angeles and a stun gun used on a shopper in Alabama, but the push to open stores even earlier than in past years was declared a success by various observers, if for different reasons.
Some shoppers said it was easier to stay up late than get up early, while industry experts reported retailers felt the crowds that turned out justified re-working the schedule.
Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C., trade group, the National Retail Federation, issued an official assessment that the early morning openings were worth it for both retailers and holiday shoppers who liked the deals they were offered.
The retail organization should release a more detailed tally of sales results Sunday. It projected up to 152 million shoppers might shop, either in stores or through websites, over the post-Thanksgiving weekend. Last year, the group expected 138 million.
Industry experts say consumers are chasing deals even more as the economy stumbles along. Retailers, for their part, have been carefully plotting their discounts to keep momentum going through the season without eliminating profit margins.
The retail federation projects total sales over the November-December holiday period will rise 2.8 percent from last year, for a total of $465.6 billion. Black Friday, the nickname for the day after Thanksgiving, isn't always the year's biggest shopping day but it is an opportunity to get consumers' attention.
Early openings weren't the only creative efforts to lure shoppers. Stores offered discounts via mobile phones and on Facebook, while even small businesses could be found promoting themselves on Twitter. At Ross Park Mall, a first-time deal offering VIP parking with in-and-out privileges found 226 takers, a mall spokesman said.
The economic doldrums seemed to intensify the focus of many customers, said Gayle Marco, a marketing professor at Robert Morris University. "People just marked what they wanted and went for that," she said.
And when they did, it was up to the stores to try to keep those deal-focused shoppers from getting out of control.
A Target employee tried to set the right tone with those lined up outside the Ross store at midnight, telling them: "No running, pushing or shoving. If you do, you will exit the line immediately."
And then, the entries were staggered. "The first 30 people come in."
As cars packed North Hills Village Mall's parking lot at the stroke of midnight, there was a sense that the new start time attracted people who happened to be awake anyway.
Rob Ruffing, of Shaler, said his daughters, Adara, 12, and Brandy, 14, are veteran Black Friday shoppers who dragged him along for the ride. If doors had opened a few hours later, they'd have had to find another chaperone.
"They would have [gone], I wouldn't," he said.
Although last-minute stragglers were able to hop into some lines and get into stores within a few minutes, die-hard traditionalists went to extremes to get in first. Emmanuel Niybizi set up a tent around 5 p.m. Thursday in front of Best Buy to camp out until midnight, and he said about 20 people were ahead of him.
Best Buy Manager John Marzullo said the first person in line arrived Wednesday evening. As Mr. Marzullo walked the line that snaked past at least five other stores toward Kuhn's Market, he said many customers he spoke to were first-time Black Friday shoppers.
"I think this time people were a little more apt to coming out and trying the Black Friday experience because it wasn't at 5 in the morning," he said. "They finished up with dinner, watched the football game and decided to come shopping."
Other businesses piggy-backed onto the early openings. Rich Michalawski, general manager of the Ulta cosmetics store in Ross, said it made sense to be open at midnight since so many of the store's neighbors were.
George Luck, general manager of the new LA Fitness farther up McKnight Road, was out at North Hills Village Mall at midnight walking store to store signing up prospective members and passing out business cards. His team was setting up tables at Macy's at midnight, J.C. Penney's at 3:30, at Dunham's sporting goods at 5 a.m.
"You want to go where the people are," he explained. "I'm just glad it's not as cold so we were able to talk to people and they weren't really irritated."
Elizabeth Hill, 21 of Marion Center, Indiana County, could be found outside Victoria's Secret in the Monroeville Mall at 3:15 a.m. Friday, waiting along with scores of other women.
Many of the mall's stores were already bustling. Macy's, which opened at midnight, was busier than most Saturday afternoons.
Ms. Hill had arrived in Monroeville at 10:15 p.m. Thursday to wait at Best Buy with her mother's boyfriend to buy a 42-inch television for $200 that normally sells for $500. They were too late.
"We were probably at least 100 people from getting that TV," she said.
They moved on to Kohl's, then to the mall. By the time she joined the masses outside Victoria's Secret, Ms. Hill had already shopped at Aeropostale, Bath and Body Works and American Eagle Outfitters.
The allure of Victoria's Secret was a tote bag with pink and red stripes and the company's name in sparkles. Inside, it held a sampler of beauty items.
At 3:30 a.m., one gate rose and the nearest shoppers rushed in. Those who had been waiting for the other gate to rise pounded on it. As the second gate went up, shoppers ducked under trying to get deals, such as one on $40 yoga pants for $20.
"This is insane," said Nicole Clark-Bey, 40, of Rankin, as she looked on from across the hallway. "You would think they were in line for $100,000, but they're not. They're in line for panties and bras. Really?"
Victoria Alisasis, of North Fayette, was enjoying the lack of crowds at the Target store around 8 a.m. Friday. She said the limited number of shoppers was "awesome."
Mrs. Alisasis, who scans print advertisements each year to determine where she'll go, had started shopping about an hour earlier for a Stark steam cleaner and planned to hit up Walmart for a Garmin GPS and Home Depot for fire logs.
"For me, this is what Thanksgiving is all about: Black Friday," she said.
Pushing a cart full of toys -- like a child's work bench, a princess tent and Transformers gadgets -- Sean Higgins and his fiancee, Maureen Cunningham, were taking advantage of the sales to Christmas shop for all six of their children.
The pair, from Clinton, had already spent more than $600 at Toys 'R' Us and were planning to drop about $400 at Target.
Although they agreed that shopping without the sizable crowds had its advantages, Ms. Cunningham wasn't impressed with the midnight openings and the fact that store employees now have to shorten their Thanksgiving.
"I hate that it's running into other people's holidays," she said.
At Saks Fifth Avenue, Downtown, which was closed on Thanksgiving Day and opened Friday at a polite 8 a.m., the ground floor was teeming in the early afternoon with shoppers enjoying what is expected to be the store's final holiday season. After more than 60 years, the store is slated to close sometime before its lease expires in September.
"I think it's sad," said Janet McKenzie, 66, of Lawrenceville, while eyeing the $30 holiday-wrapped boxes of Triple Chocolate rum cake. "I liked it when there were three department stores. It's just another place that's deteriorating Downtown."
Her shopping companion, Pat Tadajski, 74, also of Lawrenceville, said next year she'll probably do her upscale shopping at Nordstrom's and Tiffany's at Ross Park Mall, but she will miss Saks.
Saks, which opened at its current location on Smithfield Street in 1976 and before that was located in the old Gimbels department store, said declining business and the loss of merchandise from several key designers drove its decision to close.
First Published November 26, 2011 12:00 am