NEW YORK — Shoppers, who had snapped their wallets shut since September, turned out in force Friday to grab early morning deals and hard-to-find items such as Elmo Live and the “Wii Fit” exercise game, but many said worries about the economy have them focusing on fewer gifts and less expensive, more practical items.
Meanwhile, the start of the shopping season proved deadly at both a Wal-Mart store in Valley Stream, N.Y., and a Toys “R” Us store in Palm Desert, Calif.
A temporary Wal-Mart worker died after a throng of unruly shoppers broke down the doors and trampled him moments after the store opened early Friday, police said.
“This crowd was out of control,” said Nassau police spokesman Lt. Michael Fleming. He described the scene as “utter chaos.”
A shooting inside the Toys “R” Us killed two people, authorities said. Toys “R” Us released a statement late Friday, noting “our understanding is that this act seems to have been the result of a personal dispute between the individuals involved. Therefore, it would be inaccurate to associate the events of today with Black Friday.”
Elsewhere at malls and stores, it was the usual hectic start of the season, as crowds of shoppers frantically picked through piles of discounted merchandise.
“It was like everything we bought was already on sale and was an additional 50 percent off at the register,” said Lynn Mahloy of Snellville, Ga., who arrived at Atlanta’s Lenox Square Mall just after 6 a.m. on the traditional start of the holiday shopping season. But she’s slashing her holiday budget to about $1,000 this year from about $2,500 in past years because of economic worries.
“I’m just buying smaller, less expensive presents,” added Mahloy, who had bags filled with sweaters, shirts and dresses.
Preliminary reports from major retailers including Macy’s, KB Toys Inc., Best Buy Co. and Toys “R” Us and mall operators such as Taubman Centers Inc. said the crowds were at least as large as last year’s. But analysts said sales Friday may not match the year-ago levels as Americans, worried about layoffs, dwindling retirement accounts, and tightening credit, slash their holiday budgets, even for their own children.
“I’ve always filled the tree. But you have to be honest,” said Shannon Keane, 38, of Cary, N.C., a single mother who was recently laid off from her job. “This year, I’ll do the best I can.” She was out with her 13-year-old son, Miles, at a local Wal-Mart, buying one item: an iPod.
“He really wanted this one thing,” Keane said. “So we’re here for this one thing.”
And while the steep price cuts, which were even more aggressive than the deep discounting offered throughout the month, are great for consumers, such moves are expected to depress sales and profits in a season that many believe could show a rare contraction in spending, according to Janet Hoffman, managing partner of the North American retail practice of Accenture.
At a Milwaukee Wal-Mart store, Shirley Jackson, a technician, arrived at about 8 a.m., too late to get a 42-inch Polaroid HDTV selling for $598. Instead she focused on the necessities, buying shoes and pajamas for her family and stocking up on 500-threadcount sheets discounted to $20 from $70.
“It’s just as well I didn’t get the TV. I have to focus on what I need. I need sheets., I need groceries,” said Jackson, who is in her 40s. “I’m spending a whole lot less this year. I have bills to pay, and I don’t want to have it come down to choosing between buying medicine and buying groceries.”
Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, received its name because it historically was the day when a surge of shoppers helped stores break into profitability — into the black — for the year.
But this year, with rampant promotions of up to 70 percent throughout the month amid a deteriorating economy, the power of this landmark day for the retail industry could be fading.
Still, while Black Friday isn’t a predictor of holiday sales, it’s an important barometer of people’s willingness to spend for the rest of the season. This year, industry executives are taking note of how the economy is shaping buying habits.
One significant change — and a big worry for merchants — is that an increasing number of shoppers like Jared Smith are using cash or debit cards, instead of credit cards to pay for their purchases as they are either maxed out or just want to manage their money better.
“I’ll spend less this year because I want to reduce my debt,” said Smith, who was at the Owings Mills Malls in Owings Mills, Md. “I’m going to try not to use my credit card.”