Holiday Shopping Season Kicks Off

Bargain shoppers, many braving frigid temperatures, headed to the nation's stores and malls before the sun rose on Friday to nab specials on everything from toys to flat-screen TVs as the holiday shopping season officially opened.

In a slowing but still steady economy, retailers heightened their pitch to shoppers with expanded hours, generous discounts and free money in the form of gift cards. A growing number of stores and malls threw open their doors at midnight to jump-start the season. CompUSA Inc. and BJ's Wholesale Club Inc. even opened on Thanksgiving for the first time to grab customer dollars before the competition does.

"Retailers are doing more to get consumers into the stores earlier this year," said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, based in Charleston, S.C.

At a Wal-Mart store in Cincinnati, Gary Miller, a 45-year-old computer programmer, was on the hunt for a 20-inch LCD television that he had seen advertised online.

"My wife sent me out for this one," he said, pointing to the television in his shopping cart. "But then I saw this one (a 20-inch conventional TV) for $85 and said, what the heck, I'll get that one, too."

Meanwhile, Monica Midkiff, a 27-year-old homemaker from Peebles, Ohio, said she got up at 3:30 a.m. to go to Wal-Mart for a VTech game system.

"They usually cost about $60, but this was on sale for $30. That's a deal," she said.

Midkiff said she was on her way next to KB Toys and Toys "R" Us while her husband took care of their five children. She said she didn't mind the crowded stores on Friday morning.

"That place was crazy — a madhouse," she said.

Also at the Wal-Mart in Cincinnati was Clint Stapleton, 20, a construction worker from Mount Orab, who said he was happy with the deal he got on one of Wal-Mart's featured items, a 32-inch LCD TV. He said he paid $630 for a TV that usually costs about $1,000.

"After I got that, I said, that's enough, but I think I'll still look for an Xbox somewhere," Stapleton said.

In Albany, Ga., Cheryl Haley, 37, was among the 300 people lined up outside a Circuit City store when it opened at 5 a.m.

"This is the only thing on my little boy's list," said Haley, of Albany, Ga., pointing to the store circular advertising a $299 laptop. "I couldn't pay $800 for it."

She and her sister, Wendy Blount, 35, of nearby Lee County, argued over who earned the spot at the head of the line.

"I drove her here, so I'm first," Blount said.

Eric Gordon, 30, of Albany, arrived half an hour before the store opened — far too late to get one of the limited number of bargain computers.

"I should have stayed in bed and shopped online," he said. He noted it was his first Black Friday shopping experience.

Indeed, not everyone has the time and patience to brave the Black Friday crowds. The Early Show's Tracy Smith reports many others are logging on to make their holiday purchases.

The Internet is a great tool for comparison shopping, explains AOL consumer advisor Regina Lewis.

"It's a price game," Lewis says. "One of the reasons we are heading into cyber Monday is people will shop this weekend and say, 'I wonder if I can do better?' So if you go to any major shopping area on any Internet service provider or site, like, it does the shopping for you. It scans 35 million products, over 80,000 retailers, including ones you haven't heard of. People discover new Web sites who are willing to undercut the big guys just to get in the game. That works to the consumer's advantage. Then you get a list from lowest price to last. Why wouldn't you pick the lowest price?"

Shopping online does carry some risks, but, Lewis says, "The truth is, if you go to a Web site and they've been in business for years, they don't stay in business because they are doing something wrong. If you really are suspect, you can go to the Better Business Bureau and search for fraudulent shopping sites."

To be certain you are shopping on a secure Web site, check the address bar on your Internet browser. "When you go to the top and you are actually making the transaction in the browser box, the box at the top, you will literally see a change from 'http' to 'https' as in 'secure,'" Lewis explains.

Lewis recommends paying with a credit card, because the way a card's encryption is transmitted online is, "tremendously secure. It's not going to get decoded online."

"The other is the risk that sites over-promise on shipping. They say 'free shipping' and when you tally the order, it's on some but not all items, some that weigh a certain amount, or on delivery, guaranteed to arrive in time for Christmas. They say they it'll leave their warehouses but after that, it's FedEx or UPS," Lewis says.

While Black Friday officially starts holiday shopping, it's generally no longer the busiest day of the season — that honor now falls to the last Saturday before Christmas. But stores see Black Friday as setting an important tone to the overall season: What consumers see that day influences where they will shop for the rest of the season.

Last year, total Black Friday sales dipped 0.9 percent to $8 billion from the year before, dampened by deep discounting, according to Shopper Trak RCT Corp., which tracks total sales at more than 45,000 mall-based retail outlets. For the Thanksgiving weekend, total sales rose just 0.4 percent to $16.8 billion.

Still, last year merchants ended up meeting their holiday sales projections, helped by a last-minute buying surge and post-Christmas shopping.

This year, analysts expect robust holiday sales gains for the overall retail industry, though the pace is expected to be slower than a year ago. The National Retail Federation projects a 5 percent gain in total holiday sales for the November-December period, less than the 6.1 percent in the year-ago period.

Meanwhile, the International Council of Shopping Centers estimates sales at stores open at least a year will rise 3 percent in the November-December period, less than last year's 3.6 percent.