Braving the cold for big bargains

  • Article by: WENDY LEE, SARA GLASSMAN and KARA MCGUIRE , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: November 26, 2010 - 10:46 AM

Thousands of Twin Cities shoppers rushed to line up at stores in the dead of night. Many consumers are spending on themselves, a positive sign for the economy.

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And they're off.

Thousands of Twin Cities shoppers braved chilly temperatures and rushed to line up at stores in the dead of night to snap up deeply discounted flat-screen televisions, laptops and electronic readers.

This year, up to 138 million people nationwide are expected to shop on Black Friday weekend, a record-breaking number for the largest retail shopping event of the year, according to the National Retail Federation.

Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at research firm NPD Group, said so far, it looks like "a very good start for the retailers." Consumers are gobbling up sale items and even spending on themselves, a sign that they are feeling better about the economy, Cohen said.

Cohen said consumers have gotten a little bit of "frugal fatigue," and a noticeable number of people were buying for themselves today.

"They have gotten tired of living in this cocoon for so long," Cohen said. "Some of the people are tired of wearing the same stuff. The sweaters have a lot of pills in them. Their jeans are getting a little bit too tight."

Brian Dunn, CEO of Richfield-based Best Buy Co. Inc., said anecdotally, it appears lines outside the store were larger than they were last year. On average, about 700 people line up in front of a Best Buy store on Black Friday. Among the popular items this morning were its $400 Wii console and LCD HDTV bundle, smart phones and gaming products such as the Xbox 360's Kinect, Dunn said.

"So far, so good," Dunn said regarding retail's biggest shopping day.

The Albertville Premium Outlets got an early jump on Black Friday by opening at 10 p.m. on Thursday -- and the Nike Factory Store mercifully let freezing shoppers in a little early.

Among them was Kim Guck of Pelican Rapids. Bundled in three tops and two pairs of pants, she had bought her daughter a sweat suit outfit while taking much-needed refuge from the freezing weather. "We've never been here before -- we're insane!" she said. Reports of bad driving conditions almost deterred her from coming. "The roads were bone-dry," she said.

Guck's entourage of six, ranging in age from 13 to 49, had been staking out their second place spot in front of Coach. The accessories shop didn't open until midnight, but by 11 p.m., there was a line of nearly 200 people. It was one of the only lines and the longest by far. Through the window, there were signs for $129 bags with logos, $49 wristlets and $189 leather purses.

Two women from Winnipeg were first in line. They drove eight hours for the Black Friday sales because of the favorable exchange rate and the fact that their major sale day -- Boxing Day -- is after Christmas. "We're pretty cold in Canada," said Michelle Medina, who was well-covered but relatively unbothered by the wind chill. With her eye on bags toward the back of the store, she had plenty of time to plan a shopping strategy. "Run to the back of the store and grab what we can," said Medina.

At the kid's store Carter's, the entire store was at least 50 percent off, and shoppers who arrived between 10 p.m. on Thursday and noon on Friday received an additional 10 percent off their purchases. Doorbusters included Melissa and Doug puzzles for $5 and fleece shirts for $7.

Stephanie Hillman of Albertville took advantage of the deals to stock up for her 5-month old daughter. She bought items in larger sizes for next spring, spending $40.

Getting ready to leave Carter's she realized she should have picked up something for her nephew. "Oh, I'll probably come back tomorrow," she said. "The deals are so good."

At the Wal-Mart store in Maple Grove, the deals started at 12:01 a.m., and the parking lot at the was full and hectic. However, since the store is a 24-hour location, shoppers were able to wait inside, next to plastic-wrapped bundles of DVDs for $1.96 to $10 and "Band Hero" video games for $75.

When the clock struck midnight, employees unpacked the displays, and eager consumers grabbed copies of the "Wizard of Oz" for $5, the "Lord of the Rings" for $1.96 and "The Karate Kid" for $9. In the crush, people started shouting out the names of each DVD or game that was being revealed.

Brother and sister Dan Rogge of Woodbury and Katherine Rogge of Rogers staked out opposite sides of the aisle. "Be careful," Katherine advised when the free-for-all began. A student at University of Wisconsin-River Falls, Rogge was in town for Thanksgiving and finding DVDs was an annual tradition. She planned to do her actual gift shopping on Christmas Eve at the Mall of America.

After most of the DVDs were scooped up in a chaotic 15 minutes, the siblings met up to sort through the videos they had grabbed on a stack of Oreo packages. She had scored "Sex and the City 2," but missed out on the HBO series "True Blood." "I lost my copy because I wasn't tall enough," she said. The two then moved on to Target to do the same thing.

The Brooklyn Park Kohl's opened at 3 a.m., and a handful of people staked out a spot at the front of the line at the store at 11:30 p.m. Stephanie Brekke of Brooklyn Park was with a group of eight people who had been waiting outdoors all night, taking turns warming up in a car and then getting back in line.

"Kohl's always has a good selection," said Brekke, a nurse's assistant, full-time student and 6-year veteran Black Friday shopper. She was planning to browse clothing, jewelry and perfume - all as gifts. She had a strict $75 budget to find presents for 8 people, down from $500 last year.

She felt there weren't as many people in line this year. "The economy has done this," she said, adding "because it has been colder."

At 2:45 a.m., two Kohl's employees came outside and walked down the line offering credit card applications that came with additional 15 percent off coupons. There wasn't any interest. "Less credit is better for me," said Brekke. Her group planned to hit up Target at 4 a.m. "We're out of here, but it will be crazy," she said. "I'll put on knee pads for that."

A few people down the line had been waiting for just an hour, including Deundra Roberson, 9, of Minneapolis, who was awake, but stayed under multiple blankets. It was the "rookie year" for his aunt Kenyatta Roberson, also of Minneapolis. She was looking for Christmas gifts and had money to spend this year. "We learned to manage through the recession," she said. Specifically, she had paid the gas bill over the summer so that they had a large enough credit (of $350) so they could enjoy both the heat and holiday shopping. "We live within a budget, even if it's tight at times," she said.

When the clock struck 3 a.m., a crowd of several hundred who waited in their cars flooded the store as soon as the doors opened. It took Nicola Walker of Minneapolis 10 minutes to gather two hoover SteamVac "shampooers" (for her brother and her mother), two Keurig single cup coffee makers (for her friend and herself) and a dog bed for her lab-pitbull mix. The coffee makers were quite a coup for her at $10 each ,and she carried her rolled-up circular ad in her hand. "Now I just have to find the elevator," she said.

As for Brekke, she ended up with a lavender and chamomile-scented relaxation pillow, a photo album and a few other items that cost her $31 (she paid in cash) and saved $32. "I wish I'd have more money to spend."

At the SuperTarget store in Roseville, the line started forming at 8:30 Thursday night. Shortly before the store opened at 4 a.m., the line was all the way across the front of the store and down one side. Granola bars and coupons for coffee were handed out to those in line.

At the front of the line was Jim Gienger, 42, who with his nephew Bobby Gienger spent the night huddled around Sheri Sweep and her son Spencer Brelje's portable heater. The small group owning the front of the line didn't know each other before last night, but after hours huddled together, they had crafted a strategy to make sure they each scored new HDTVs.

Sweep, of St. Paul, is a Black Friday veteran, but Jim Gienger is a newbie. "I want the TV for the Super Bowl," he said. But he was also buying DVD players as gifts. Sweep was also buying the TV for herself, saying she has done most of her gift shopping at Amazon.com this year because the big-box retailers lacked compelling deals.

The Roseville crowd was orderly and let out a cheer when the doors finally opened. By about 4:20 a.m., the doorbuster TVs were gone.

At the Target store in downtown Minneapolis, shoppers who arrived at 4 a.m. found that 40-inch TVs on sale for $298 were already sold out. Some doorbuster deals such as Canon digital cameras were still in stock shortly before 6 a.m., however.

Shalini Goyal, 32, arrived at the downtown Target at 4 a.m. to buy a discounted $129 digital camera and a $35 Wii Resort game for her 7-year-old son.

"There are really, really few in stock," Goyal said, excited about her purchase. "I didn't want to miss the opportunity."

Michelle Fryer, 26, started her shopping at 5 a.m., three hours earlier this year at the Downtown Target in order to get a jump start in finding bargains.

"I wanted good deals," Fryer said, as she rolled her cart filled with items like an iPod, digital camera, DVD player and clothes. "You don't want to go broke for Christmas."

At several Twin Cities stores, the number of shoppers were expected to surpass last Black Friday's. The Mall of America estimates there will be more than 190,000 people this year, up from last year's count of 187,000 shoppers.

The megamall opened its doors one hour earlier this year at 3 a.m. and there were crowds of shoppers taking advantage of deals on electronics or snapping up discounted clothes of up to 60 percent off, said mall spokesman Dan Jasper. Jasper said this year's opening was the biggest he's ever seen in his five years of working there.

"People seem more optimistic this year than they have been in the last couple of years," Jasper said. "Everyone is carrying, two, three, four [shopping bags]. Everyone is ready to buy and there are great bargains to be had."

The Black Friday tradition

"Black Friday now is synonymous with this great value for money day that has permeated the U.S. consumer," said Bill Martin, senior vice president of external affairs at Chicago-based research firm ShopperTrak.

Some of the better deals reserved for early Black Friday shoppers included a 40-inch LCD HDTV at Target for $298, a savings of more than $250. Meanwhile, Wal-Mart and Best Buy sold discounted laptops at roughly $200, while Amazon will sell an older version of the Kindle, its electronic book device, for $89 later this morning.

On average, Best Buy said 700 people line up in front of each store on Black Friday and the retailer will sell enough laptops that when stacked side by side, they would stretch from its Richfield headquarters to the top of Chicago's Sears Tower. This year, one family camped out in front of a Best Buy store in Florida ten days before Black Friday to grab early morning bargains.

Some analysts said consumers are feeling better about the economy compared to last year. U.S. consumers will spend an average of about $689 on holiday shopping, according to the National Retail Federation, which is predicting a 2.3 percent increase in holiday sales. Other predictions range from a 2 percent gain forecast by Deloitte & Touche to a 3 percent to 3.5 percent increase from International Council of Shopping Centers.

The most popular gift items will be electronics, clothing and toys, according to a Consumer Reports survey of shoppers. The demand for flat panel or LCD television set rose 8 percent this year compared to 2009, while interest in buying an electronic reader on Black Friday weekend increased 9 percent.

"We saw a real resurgence in the types of items they are looking at buying people," said Ed Farrell, director of Consumer Reports National Research Center. "The consumer has been holding back for two years now. They have been extremely cautious and cutting back and being practical. We might be seeing a little bit of a splurge on some items this year."

Black Friday will also be a day when consumers will purchase more than just gifts for others. For some shoppers, it's a day to buy for themselves. About 74 percent of shoppers planning to visit stores today will be purchasing non-holiday items for themselves or their families, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Sharon Nelson, 59, started her shopping on Thanksgiving Day, helping her daughter Meaghan select pink dress shoes on sale for $20 to wear for a wedding in the spring. Meaghan, 27, conveniently forgot her wallet, but Nelson still sprung for the Sears purchase. The two plan to continue their annual tradition of shopping on Black Friday at the Mall of America. .

"It's fun to get the best deal ever," said Nelson, a Mendota Heights resident.

Still, some consumers said they are being cautious about how much they are spending. The number of shoppers using credit cards is expected to reach the lowest level since 2002, according to the National Retail Federation.

"Many families may choose to leave credit cards at home as they shop this year, making sure to only purchase what's on their list and within their budget," said Matthew Shay, the federation's president and CEO.

No matter what the lines though, a more thorough examination of the numbers will come later. Michael Niemira, chief economist for the International Council of Shopping Centers, has always declined to talk about Black Friday on the day.

"Impressions may be very misleading and certainly can be uneven across the country for various reasons," Niemira said. "It will be busy and intense, but history suggests that it will not be a good bellwether of the season as a whole -- sometimes it has been and other times it has not."

wendy.lee@startribune.com • 612-673-1712

sara.glassman@startribune.com • 612-673-7177

kmcguire@startribune.com • 612-673-7293

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