In a year of tight budgets, Black Friday bargain-hunting was a necessity, as well as an event.
Retailers blasted sales out earlier, and online deals were more robust than in years past. But alarm clocks still clanged in the early-morning hours, and lines still snaked around stores in Minnesota and the nation. Despite the highest unemployment in decades, shoppers seem unwilling to give up their competitive hunt for Black Friday deals.
"They're tired of living in a cocoon," said Marshal Cohen, a retail analyst with market research firm NPD Group. "They weren't here just to window shop and see what kind of deals were out there. They were ready to buy."
At least the bargains. Laptops for $200 and down comforters for $20 were among deals that got Black Friday traditionalists out of bed.
"Everything is something I need at home," said Ali Sardeye, 30, of St. Louis Park, who hit the Eden Prairie Wal-Mart before dawn. His cart was stuffed with a comforter, computer and two vacuums, one of which he bought for a neighbor. He said he'd been saving for the big splurge and was paying with cash.
With many consumers like Sardeye mindful of taking on debt, experts believe holiday sales will be down compared with last year, when retailers suffered their worst gift-giving season since 1970.
On Friday, the traditional kickoff to the holiday season, discount stores appeared to draw more shoppers than clothing stores and higher-end shops, and sales of electronics seemed to be an early winner.
Richfield-based Best Buy said traffic at stores in every region of the country outpaced that of two years ago as shoppers snapped up smart phones, flat-panel TVs, computers and digital cameras.
"That's where we've placed our inventory bets this year," said Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn. "We're smiling today."
Shoppers also gravitated toward no-interest financing packages, Dunn said, particularly since Best Buy lowered the threshold to qualify to $249 from last year's $499.
Sears and Kmart shoppers were budget-minded as well.
"We're seeing people rushing into stores, grabbing doorbuster items, and heading right to layaway," said Tom Aiello, a spokesman for Sears Holdings Corp. "People just need a bridge, an additional one or two pay periods, so they don't have to use their credit cards."
'Little doorbuster that could'
The $9.99 Snuggie is the "little doorbuster that could," flying off the shelves as fast as salespeople could restock them, Aiello said. Tools were top sellers, too, including the $39.99 Craftsman cordless drill set. Sears sold out of its $579 washer-dryer set.
Part tradition, part desperation, Black Friday's significance for retailers is real, say analysts, even as stores have been promoting Black Friday-type deals since late October.
In five of the past six years, Black Friday has been the busiest shopping day of the year. Some 57 million people plan to shop this weekend, with another 77 million saying they'll wait to see how good the deals are, according to the National Retail Federation, an industry trade group. The group forecasts sales for the overall holiday period to fall 1 percent to $437 billion.
Unemployment stands at 10.2 percent, the highest rate in 26 years, and Americans remain weighed down with concerns about tightening credit and homes that, for nearly one in four Americans, are worth less than the mortgage.
But recent surveys, including one by Deloitte Research Nov. 19-22, found that more than 4 in 10 consumers are getting more optimistic about shopping plans as the holidays approach. And 86 percent said they'll spend more on gifts than they previously thought.
"Retailers today aren't offering dramatic discounts of 60 or 70 percent from last year," said Keith Jelinek of AlixPartners. "Rather, they're enticing customers with value and selection."
Stores that succeeded in getting consumers to cross the threshold on Black Friday made their intentions loud and clear in store windows, he said. Many merchants packaged accessories with GPS devices, offered gift cards for shoppers who spent a certain amount or grouped gifts under $10.
Goodies and limited-quantity deals packed a punch, too.
The Mall of America, a Black Friday wallflower in years past, had about 2,500 people in line when the doors opened at 4 a.m., an hour earlier than last year. Many were attracted by goodie bags that included $25 gift cards for the first 300 people. Retailers and partners supersized 21 of the bags with prizes worth at least $500. One lucky winner got a $5,000 Mall of America shopping spree.
When the manager of Target's Eden Prairie store arrived at 2:30 a.m., shoppers were already in line. By the time doors opened at 5 a.m., Mike Kimball estimated 750 to 1,000 people were waiting outside.
The most popular item was a 32-inch flat-screen TV on sale for $246. Heavily promoted $3 coffeepots and other appliances sold out in 45 minutes.
Asked what shoppers seemed to be after, he said: "I think there are some great cost savings, and people are watching their money."
There were some reports of skirmishes. A Wal-Mart store in Upland, Calif., near Los Angeles, closed for several hours before dawn after some shoppers began fighting over bargain merchandise, police said. Workers at the Kohl's in Roseville calmed a brief scuffle after someone cut in line before the doors opened.
But in most areas, all was calm, even if the exuberance of previous years was missing.
'Wants' vs. 'needs'
Kim Gargaro, from La Crosse, Wis., sat down with her family Thanksgiving evening and "separated the wants from the needs."
Even though a sale-priced Xbox 360 and a GPS unit beckoned from the ads, they put them down in the "wants" column. So when she and her 10-year-old daughter Morgan went to the checkout at the Roseville Kohl's before 6 a.m., they had a 61-piece dinnerware set for $40 and a comforter.
"We're cutting back because we want to make sure we're OK, just in case," said Gargaro, a part-time teacher, referring to the economy.
Such sentiments make NPD's Cohen cautious about how retailers will fare over the next month. "Consumers haven't disappeared," he said. "But one day does not a holiday season make."
Best Buy's Dunn agreed, saying the "meat and potatoes" of the holiday season happens in December, over a more sustained period. But after visiting Twin Cities stores and checking in with managers across the country, Dunn was upbeat about what he called the "hypercompetitive moment" of Black Friday.
"We're not seeing a mind-set with consumers that's dour," he said. "We're seeing consumers smiling with a chance to buy the latest and greatest things. We've had a year to get used to the environment we're living in, and I do think we have this resilience about us as a society, and we're seeing that today."
Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335 Karen Lundegaard • 612-673-4151 Chris Serres • 612-673-4308 Suzanne Ziegler • 612-673-1707