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Black Friday shoppers stream into stores

Many wait for hours to buy giant flat-screen TVs and other 'door-buster' bargains. But whether all the foot traffic translates into strong sales is yet to be determined.

November 28, 2009|By Andrea Chang and Tiffany Hsu
  • Veronica Brunner lies on the floor waiting for the Victoria's Secret store to open in South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa. The University of Arizona student and two of her old friends are among 65 women who were waiting for the 6 a.m. opening and the mad dash for big discounts.
Veronica Brunner lies on the floor waiting for the Victoria's Secret… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)

Shoppers stormed Southland malls Friday in a quest for discounted merchandise, some getting into fights as they rushed to nab cheap electronics and video games.

"This is overwhelming -- the amount of people, the rush -- I love it," said Anthony Howard, 25, who was pushing a shopping cart full of toys minutes after the doors opened at midnight at a Toys R Us store near Glendale.

"It's all about getting that last toy right before somebody else grabs it."

The usual day-after-Thanksgiving excitement turned chaotic at a Wal-Mart store in Rancho Cucamonga, where police were called after shoppers began fighting over a Rock Band video game package, company spokesman Dave Tovar said.

Police also helped clear the chain's Upland store after some customers began grabbing boxes containing Black Friday specials and tearing at the shrink wrap. Told to line up in the parking lot, shoppers began screaming and pounding on the glass doors, Tovar said.

The traditional kickoff to the holiday season and one of the biggest shopping days of the year, Black Friday has become notorious for the throngs of frenzied consumers who vie for door-buster deals, special markdowns and freebies.

The economic effect of all that shopping won't be known until Sunday, when preliminary sales figures are expected to be released. Black Friday has taken on even greater importance this year for retailers and economists, who said that holiday shopping would be key to a strong recovery.

At Best Buy stores across Southern California, bleary-eyed shoppers slept in tents and huddled in blankets as they waited for doors to open at 5 a.m. Toys R Us customers quickly emptied the stores of popular Zhu Zhu robotic hamster pets while sales associates asked people not to run through the aisles. At Camarillo Premium Outlets on Thanksgiving night, traffic was backed up to the 101 Freeway and impatient drivers argued over parking spots.

"It's a madhouse," said Lucy Mardonovich, 43, who arrived at the shopping center about 10 p.m. Thursday, when many of the stores opened, to shop for purses at the Coach outlet.

"It took me 45 minutes to find a parking spot and the Coach line was about a three-hour wait. I didn't even get in."

Others said they didn't mind braving the crowds and forgoing sleep -- and in some cases Thanksgiving dinner -- if it meant scoring a great deal.

"Thirty hours of waiting outside was worth it," said Fernando Roldan, 22, as he emerged with a laptop and two digital cameras that he bought for $450. "I'd do it again."

At Wal-Mart, where officials took extra precautions after a worker was trampled to death by Black Friday shoppers in Valley Stream, N.Y., last year, most U.S. stores stayed open all night so that rowdy crowds would not gather outside.

Although the stores were open, Black Friday specials didn't take effect until 5 a.m. At the Upland location, customers started lunging for the most coveted items ahead of time, jostling and shoving each other.

Police arrived about 3 a.m. and helped remove all 300 shoppers from the store, which closed for more than two hours to allow customers to "calm down," said Tovar, the Wal-Mart spokesman.

At most stores, however, crowds were manageable, he said.

"We had new safety plans in place this year at stores across the country and they were store-specific," he said. "There have been a few scuffles, but overall it's been a very safe event with no major issues."

Despite the hordes of shoppers -- up to 134 million people were expected to shop over the long weekend -- industry watchers were skeptical that most were spending freely. Amid a sharp consumer pullback in discretionary spending, and with the nation's unemployment rate in double digits, there were fears that heavy foot traffic wouldn't translate into strong sales.

"I think all retailers are holding on by their fingertips to see what this Christmas really turns out to be," said Jack Kyser, chief economist at the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

"They've trimmed their inventories and have gone all-out on promotions, but at the end of the day I think they're very nervous. And for a lot of retailers, this might be the make-or-break season."

Many shoppers who hit the malls for Black Friday said the economic downturn was on their minds.

Michelle Kovashimeh, who was leaving Glendale Galleria about 2 a.m., said the weak job market spurred her decision to stay up late to hunt for bargains.

The temporary employee said she was having a hard time finding stable long-term work that pays better than minimum wage and planned to slash her holiday budget in half this year, to $250.

"Everything I'm getting costs like 5 bucks: T-shirts, plush items, mugs," the 22-year-old Glendale resident said. "I can't spend money like I did last year."

In San Francisco's Union Square, Sandy Kimball, 59, said she would cut back on holiday gifts because of rising college tuition for her daughter and because she's currently not working.

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