U.S. retailers looked to cash in on a frenzy of Black Friday deals, but amid the flurry of activity were doubts about whether consumers could keep up the spending throughout the critical holiday season in a tight economy.
"We had hundreds of people in line at every store," said Neil Friedman, president of Toys "R" Us Inc., which opened its stores at 9 p.m. Thursday, an hour earlier than it did last year.
"We believe from everything we've heard that there were more customers waiting to come in this year than last year."
Still, industry observers fear the early signs of healthy spending on big deals may not survive the holiday period. Consumers could soon be tapped out, burdened by debts and a limited pool of money, said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at U.S.-based market researcher NPD Group. Retailers carrying lean levels of inventory could run out of stock early rather than offer attractive discounts to clear merchandise.
The race to open stores in the wee hours of the morning also cast a harsh light on some shoppers, as violence broke out at some stores.
"People started screaming, pulling and pushing each other, and the whole area filled up with pepper spray," Alejandra Seminario, 24, told the Los Angeles Times after the day's most infamous incident, that of a woman allegedly pepper spraying rival shoppers at a Wal-Mart as tried to get first to the Xbox and Wii games.
"This was customer-versus-customer 'shopping rage,'" Los Angeles Police Lt. Abel Parga said, as about 20 people suffered minor injuries. Or, as fire Capt. James Carson put it, "she was competitive shopping," the newspaper reported.
At another Wal-Mart outlet in San Francisco, a man was shot. There were other incidents reported elsewhere during the long shopping day.
For retailers, the extended hours paid off.
"Early morning openings appear to have been well worth it for both retailers and holiday shoppers," said Matthew Shay, chief executive officer of the National Retail Federation.
NPD's Mr. Cohen, who travelled from store to store in three states from 7 p.m. on the eve of Black Friday, said crowds seemed heaviest at Wal-Mart and Best Buy stores. "Anybody who is getting up at those hours and waiting in line is not coming home empty-handed," he said as he stood at the packed Toys "R" Us flagship in New York's Times Square.
Toys "R" Us was starting to run out of popular items, such as Moxie dolls, Mr. Friedman said. But the company was moving quickly during the weekend to replenish its shelves to meet the demand.
From all walks of life they came. Everyone likes a bargain, but it takes a special kind of determination to brave the night cold of Buffalo in November to save a hundred bucks on a television. Not even major heart surgery - a triple bypass just five weeks ago in Linda Krugman's case - could keep the customers away.
She camped out for almost 28 hours at a Buffalo Best Buy waiting to score a TV and computer.
"This is the only way I can afford Christmas," she said, adding she could save as much as $500 (U.S.).
Customers like Ms. Krugman were hungry for deals, and the stores responded in kind.
Wal-Mart, whose U.S. stores were mostly open all day on the Thanksgiving holiday, stepped up its array of Black Friday sales compared with a year earlier, spokesman Greg Rossiter said.
Still, retailers probably won't end up offering more discounts over the course of the holiday season than last year, Mr. Cohen said. Their business model calls for extended hours and promotions over a longer period, rather than deeper discounts overall - saving them from having to cut more deeply into their profits, he said. Friday, though, drew shoppers from far and wide.
Koreen Lahey and her two sisters will tell you they travelled from Sydney, N.S., to Raleigh, N.C., to visit relatives and share Thanksgiving with them. But privately, she says she really came for Black Friday.
"We just don't have this at home," Ms. Lahey said as she headed into Crabtree Mall with a group of family members. "This is our second year coming here."
Black Friday, the traditional kickoff to the holiday season, is seen as a barometer of how business may unfold. It got its name from the heavy sales on that day that helped retailers' ledgers go from the red into the black. However, the extent of discounting that merchants now have to tout to lure customers is rapidly shaving margins. Last year, the Thanksgiving shopping weekend made up 12.1 per cent of overall holiday sales, according to researcher ShopperTrak. And Black Friday itself accounted for roughly half of those revenues.
Before it was even known as Black Friday, Terry Williams, of Poulsbo, Wash., and her family had made a tradition of post-Thanksgiving shopping trips, for about four decades, in fact.
Flanked by her daughter and daughter-in-law, she was in an early crush of shoppers at a Target outlet at the Bellis Fair mall in Bellingham, Wash., by 4 a.m.
"The prices are good, there are lots of sales - but mostly it's something we started doing years ago and just continued on."
Retailers are carrying fewer must-have items than in years past, resulting in a stampede for a smaller number of coveted products, such as tablet computers.
At the same time, cash-strapped consumers have a pent-up demand for merchandise such as Wii game consoles, Mr. Cohen said. Heavy discounting is needed to get them through the doors.
Still, business on the weekend will be less a signal of the holiday season this year than in the past, he predicted, adding business may trail off after the weekend but recover to more normal levels in the last days before Christmas.
You wouldn't know that from Friday, where some literally shopped till they dropped.
Kristie Pittman slumped into a soft red chair in the Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh as dozens of people filed by. It was 8:20 a.m. and Ms. Pittman, a heath care worker used to 12-hour shifts, had three shopping bags at her feet, plenty more in her car and several hours of shopping still to go.
"We've been shopping since 8:30 last night," said Ms. Pittman nodding to her friend sitting next to her who looked half asleep. "We'll probably be finished by about noon. We'll be pooped."
Asked if she planned to spend as much as last year, Ms. Pittman paused, did a quick mental check and said: "I think so. But I'm pretty cost-conscious this year."
Indeed, the National Retail Federation estimates that U.S. holiday sales will pick up 2. 8 per cent this year to $465-billion, but others aren't as bullish.
Mr. Cohen predicts that U.S. holiday business will gain 1.5 per cent to 2 per cent, held back by an absence of new and compelling products, and retailers' lean inventory levels. "The consumer doesn't have more discretionary income just because the stores are open earlier and have more deals," he said. "Don't look for the consumer to really spend that much more money just because of the early surge."
And tightfisted shoppers will be cautious in their spending. "There are more customers looking for more deals," Mr. Friedman said.
"I think it's kind of excessive to get up at five in the morning just to get a good deal," Jaime Korner, a Bellingham, Wash., high-school student said outside the Bellis Fair mall. She was attempting - with limited success - to find people who would agree to be interviewed for a school project on the commercialization of Christmas.