High cost of bargains

A shopper in Los Angeles pepper-sprayed her competition for an Xbox and scuffles broke out elsewhere around the U.S. as bargain-hunters crowded stores in an earlier-than-usual start to the madness known as Black Friday.

For the first time, chains such as Target, Best Buy and Kohl’s opened their doors at midnight on the most anticipated shopping day of the year. Toys R Us opened for the second straight year on Thanksgiving itself. And some shoppers arrived with sharp elbows.

Near Muskegon, Mich., a teenage girl was knocked down and stepped on several times after getting caught in the rush to a sale in the electronics department at a Walmart store. She suffered minor injuries.

On Thanksgiving night, a Walmart in Los Angeles brought out a crate of discounted Xboxes, and as a crowd waited for the video game players to be unwrapped, a woman fired pepper spray at the other shoppers “in order to get an advantage,” police said.

Ten people suffered cuts and bruises in the chaos, and 10 others had minor injuries from the spray, authorities said. The woman got away in the confusion, and it was not immediately clear whether she got an Xbox.

On Friday morning, police said, two women were injured and a man was charged after a fight broke out at an upstate New York Walmart. A man was arrested in a scuffle at a jewelry counter at a Walmart in Kissimmee, Fla.

In Snohomish County, shoppers were busy, but not vicious.

I-5 slowed to a crawl late Thursday night near 164th Street SW as shoppers prepared to head for Alderwood mall or Walmart.

On Friday, stores were busy.

Diana Chin avoided shopping in the wee hours, but she did get up before 7 a.m. to browse Fred Meyer in Everett. “This is the best store for us,” she said. “There is no need to get up early.”

Fred Meyer, which annually offers a free board game for each one purchased, stationed plenty of workers in the toy section,

Wal-Mart spokesman Greg Rossiter said Friday it was safe at most of its nearly 4,000 U.S. stores, but there were “a few unfortunate incidents.”

The incidents were attributed to two converging Friday trends: Crowds are getting bigger as stores open earlier and stay open later. At the same time, cash-strapped shoppers are competing for deals on a small number of gifts that everybody wants — tablet computers, TVs and game consoles like Xbox, Nintendo 3S and Wii.

That’s a shift from years past, when there was a wider range of must-have items.

“The more the people, the more the occurrences,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst with market research firm The NPD Group.

A record number of shoppers are expected this weekend to take advantage of discounts of up to 70 percent. For three days starting Friday, 152 million people are expected to shop, either online or in stores, an increase of about 10 percent from last year, according to the National Retail Federation.

Thanksgiving weekend, particularly Friday, is huge for retailers. Over the past six years, Friday was the biggest sales day of the year, and it is expected to keep that crown this year, though shoppers seem to be procrastinating more every year, and the fate of the holiday season is increasingly coming down to the last few days before Christmas.

Last year, the Thanksgiving shopping weekend accounted for 12.1 percent of overall holiday sales, according to ShopperTrak, a research firm. Black Friday made up about half of that.

ShopperTrak is expected to release sales data Saturday on how Friday fared, but a better picture will emerge when major retailers report their November sales figures next Thursday.

In addition to opening earlier than usual this year, some stores offered to match their competitors’ prices, rolled out layaway programs or offered more door-buster deals than last year.

Emmanuel Merced and his brother showed up at a Best Buy in New York at 3 p.m. Wednesday so they could be the first in line when it opened at midnight Thursday to grab a Sharp 42-inch TV for $199.99, a PlayStation 3 with games for $199.99 and wireless headphones for $30.

Merced said he likes camping out for Black Friday and figured he saved 50 percent.

“I like the experience of it,” said Merced, who plans to spend $3,000 to $4,000 on gifts this season.

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