The nation's shoppers took advantage of deals on toys and TVs with some renewed vigor in stores and online on Black Friday after a year of concentrating their spending on basic necessities.
Though the first numbers won't be available until Saturday, early reports indicated bigger crowds than last year, with people buying more and even throwing in some items for themselves.
It was an encouraging sign for retailers, which have suffered through a year of sales declines, and perhaps also for the broader economy, which could use a kickstart from consumer spending.
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In Chicago, Dan Montgomery and his wife carted bulging Macy's bags, proclaiming the department stores had "killer deals." Their favorite buy? A set of two skillets for $19.99, marked down from $100.
Still, mall operators said more shoppers were sticking to making purchases in cash and debit cards instead of credit. "I like cash because when you're out of cash, you're out of cash. And you don't have the hangover in January," Montgomery said.
Worries about jobs clearly were on shoppers' minds. Most people buying for themselves were picking up practical things that were deeply discounted such as pillows, pajamas and coffee makers, according to stores and analysts.
"With the layoff there have been a few cutbacks, but with the great sales they're offering this year, I think it's, overall, going to be a great Christmas for my two granddaughters," said Ernest Bell of Marietta, Ga., who was laid off in April from his job as an information technology support representative and was at the local Walmart on Friday.
The nation's retailers ushered in the traditional start of the holiday shopping season with expanded hours and deep discounts in hopes of getting people to spend.
Online, Walmart.com, Amazon.com and other online retailers also grabbed for a piece of the action, pushing deals on Thursday and even earlier in the week. Several large retailers, including Walmart and many Old Navy locations, even opened on Thanksgiving.
Those stores now have to figure out how to keep people coming back through Dec. 25.
Though there were isolated reports of squabbles, the pre-dawn crowds were generally calm. Stores took extra precautions to control the throngs after a Walmart worker on Long Island was trampled to death last year on Black Friday.
Analysts monitoring the malls said shoppers were less frenetic, having researched deals before going shopping. Extended hours also gave shoppers more time to grab deals both online and in stores than a year ago. Most Walmart stores were open on Thanksgiving to prevent the mad dash of shoppers for its Friday 5 a.m. specials.
ShopLocal, a subsidiary of publisher Gannett Co., on Friday said traffic was up 27 percent at top retailers' online sites featuring their Black Friday ads.
Stores were encouraged that shoppers appeared to be a little freer with their spending. Best Buy, Sears Holdings Corp. and mall operators Taubman Centers, Mall of America and Simon Properties offered signs people were buying more than last year.
An average of about 1,000 people were in line for midnight openings at Toys R Us stores, CEO Gerald Storch said. After setting aside 100 Zhu Zhu Pets hamsters for each location, Toys R Us came back with several shipments of the hot toy for several of its stores Friday.
Even luxury stores, which generally aren't the big attractions for Black Friday, had brisk traffic, according to analysts.
More than 5,000 people were at Macy's Herald Square store in New York early Friday, slightly more than last year, Macy's CEO Terry J. Lundgren said. Among the most popular items were Tommy Hilfiger $99 bomber jackets, marked down from $450.
Dondrae May, a manager at a Best Buy in Framingham, Mass., said shoppers started lining up at 4 p.m. Thursday — 13 hours before opening. He said shoppers were filling their baskets with more items than a year ago, when they were shellshocked after the financial meltdown. The biggest draws were laptops, TVs and GPS systems, he said.
The chain had sold out of all of its early morning specials within two hours of the 5 a.m. opening, spokesman Scott Morris said.
While Black Friday is not a bellwether for the season, analysts are studying Friday's receipts to better understand the mindset of shoppers like Laura Frankito, a nurse who found herself at Kohl's outside Cleveland buying a Snuggie blanket-robe for her aunt and Tony Hawk T-shirts for her nephew.
She's only giving money to her two children, and she pointed out her newfound practicality by saying she wouldn't get a $12.99 canine version of the Snuggie for her sister's dog.
"There would have been a year when I would have gotten that," she said.
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