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Black Friday shoppers, malls adapt to early start on Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving dinner was a 20-minute affair for Eleanor Trevino, her mother, daughter and daughter-in-law, who rushed off midday on an annual family Black Friday shopping binge that turned into an all-nighter.

When hunger struck, the quartet snacked on Thanksgiving leftovers packed in their SUV.

The odyssey that began at a Kmart sale included a seven-hour wait to get in Toys "R" Us and meant navigating packed parking lots at Kohl's, Target and Walmart before they returned to the same Kmart at daybreak Friday to grab another tantalizing limited-time offer.

"The prices are better this year," declared the 46-year-old St. Petersburg housewife, helping stuff two shopping carts of toys in the trunk. "Except for one item, everything was half off or better."

Indeed, chock full of deals like a 42-inch brand-name HDTV for $200 at Best Buy and $7.97 Wrangler jeans at Walmart, stores that opened earlier and deeper into Thanksgiving day were mobbed all night thanks to a new wrinkle: staggered opening times. American Eagle and Express chopped 40 percent off everything. At Macy's, midnight shoppers pawed over racks of fresh half-price apparel, attacked tables piled high with $60 Rampage boots for $20 and lined up to grab a limited edition, scented poster of teen idol Justin Bieber packaged for $65 with his new fragrance and latest CD.

"Our boot sale was a madhouse," said Gregg Ely, store manager of JCPenney in St. Petersburg, where 2,900 free snow globes were passed out within an hour of a 3 a.m. opening. "And we blew out a four-piece luggage set at $40."

Retailers pulled out all the promotional stops for the official start of the holiday shopping season. Behind the urgency: forecasts like the National Retail Federation's, which envisions a scant 2.8 percent increase to $466 billion this year over last year.

The reasons go beyond the familiar post-recession litany of high unemployment and stagnant incomes. Half of this season's sales gain comes from higher retail prices thanks to rising transportation costs and materials prices. And while consumers a year ago thought the economy was improving, government gridlock makes them wonder if another downturn is coming.

"It will be very difficult to sustain the stronger sales gains we saw in the fall through the holidays," said Mike Niemira, chief economist for the International Council of Shopping Centers. "I can see a bigger-than-usual squeeze on profits closer to Christmas Day" when retailers cut prices to dump the unsold.

The weak forecast is the consensus, but hardly unanimous. Wells Fargo economist Mark Vitner sees a repeat of last year's 5.2 percent sales gain. Based on consumer mood surveys, Deloitte Research sees a sales decline.

So retailers are banging the drum to coax shoppers to buy now. There are fashion trends and new products to help. Sales of skinny jeans, hoodie buddy sweatshirts prewired for iPods, and sweater dresses are on the rise. From the people who made "Heelies" shoes for kids, there's a ballerina shoe with a spinning toe for little girls. Brookstone expects big things from a $150 remote control Rover Spy Tank equipped with night vision that broadcasts live video back to the screen of a cell phone or iPad that controls its path.

"I can only imagine what teenage boys will to do with it around the house," said Ron Biore, Brookstone chief executive.

The staggered openings that pushed Black Friday into Thanksgiving likely will be permanent. Daytime crowds were thin, but after nightfall huge crowds mobbed stores.

Once Macy's, Target and Kohl's moved their openings back to midnight, Walmart shifted up to 10 p.m. and Toys "R" Us to 9 p.m. JCPenney did not advertise that it bumped its opening up an hour to 3 a.m. to catch people leaving Kohl's and Macy's and open ahead of rival Sears at 4 a.m. It all prodded dozens of mall chains to jostle for opening hour position, including some that didn't choose to open hours earlier until Thanksgiving Day.

"It was a strong night with many stores exceeding projections," said Jeni Wilson, Tyrone Square Mall manager, who put in a 16-hour day.

Staggered hours pleased some shoppers who could spread several waves of openings throughout the night and morning.

"I worried the best deals would be wiped out before we got here at 3 a.m., but there were plenty," said Miranda Messenger, a Seminole Middle School student.

"We went home in the early morning after Walmart and Target," said Joanna Finch, a Tampa nurse who doesn't usually frequent malls on Black Friday but was cruising Westfield Citrus Park mall by mid-morning. "Our 15-year-old daughter had to see Hollister, so here were are. There are still plenty of deals."

Fears that "shopped out" crowds would fade later Black Friday morning did not pan out. There was a lull between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. dramatic enough to embolden seagulls and crows to divebomb scraps littering the once jammed parking lot at a Pinellas Park Walmart supercenter. But the empty spaces disappeared by mid-morning.

"We had a mid-morning swell that brought us back to the usual Black Friday," said Jay Botsch, manager of WestShore Plaza.

Fighting for their share, online retailers have added comparison shopping, sale price alerts and customer review tools to an array of mobile phone apps to make them more valuable to people while they shop inside stores. With more discounts than ever, an earlier start on Thanksgiving Day and requisite free shipping, many hope to push online sales closer to 10 percent of all holiday merchandise sales this season.

Last year Cyber Monday cracked sales of $1 billion, the biggest single day ever online, but a tenth of the $10.6 billion sold in brick-and-mortar stores on Black Friday, according to ShopperTrak.

"We see this turning into a five-day shopping event that starts Thanksgiving and ends on Cyber Monday," said Gwen Bennett, who heads Bealls-Florida.com online.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Black Friday shoppers, malls adapt to early start on Thanksgiving 11/25/11 [Last modified: Friday, November 25, 2011 11:46pm]
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