Black Friday underway across the nation, as shoppers are already crowding stores and malls in the wee hours, some after spending the night waiting in line, to grab early morning deals and hard-to-find items.
The nation's retailers expanded their hours and offered deep discounts on everything from toys to TVs in hopes of getting consumers, many of whom are worried about high unemployment and tight credit, to open their wallets.
A number of stores, including Walmart and many Old Navy locations, opened on Thanksgiving, hoping to make the most of the extra hours. Toys R Us opened most of its stores just after midnight Friday.
But worries about jobs clearly were on top of shoppers' minds as they focused on big bargains on TVs and practical gifts. Many shoppers said Friday they plan to spend less this year than they did last year.
At a Best Buy in suburban Cincinnati, store officials said some people starting camping out with tents at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday. The store started handing out tickets for big items, like laptop computers and televisions, around 4 a.m. Friday.
Robin Fryman, 47, of Mount Orab, Ohio, said she and her daughter, a friend and her husband got out at 6:30 a.m. for deals at Best Buy. Her hours as a food worker were recently cut from 40 to 25 per week.
"I've definitely cut down. You have to cut down, because you have to eat," Fryman said. "It's definitely made a difference in the way I'm shopping."
She said she usually shops on Black Friday, but got out earlier this year to find a camera for her daughter. They bought a $300 Nikon camera for $172. Other than that, she's focusing mostly on practical items like clothing.
At the Walmart store in Valley Stream, N.Y., where a security guard was trampled to death in a Black Friday stampede last year, heavy turnout filled the store to capacity, leading to a snaking line hundreds of people deep around 4 a.m. The store was letting shoppers a few at a time as other shoppers left amid a heavy security presence.
The store's sales brought many shoppers out for the first time, among them Sheirra Henderson of Queens, N.Y. She was there for $7 Nintendo Wii games and a netbook as gifts for her kids.
"We're in a recession, so I figured we'd be able to save more money," she said.
Most of the Walmart stores were open on Thanksgiving to prevent the mad dash for the 5 a.m. opening.
At Macy's flagship store in New York, which opened at 5 a.m., dozens of women were rummaging through a bin of purses marked 40 percent off the original price. Jean Howard, from Cork, Ireland, said she planned to buy for her three children and spend the same this year, regardless of the weak economy.
"We have a recession back home in Ireland, as well, but our list is still the same," Howard said. "We don't get depressed when we're shopping!"
Howard's shopping list also included tracksuits and Timberland clothing.
After suffering the worst sales decline in several decades last holiday season, the good news is that the retail industry is heading into the Christmas selling period armed with lean inventories and more practical goods on their shelves that reflect shoppers' new psyche.
Still, with unemployment at 10.2 percent, many analysts expect that total holiday sales will be at best about even from a year ago.
Optimism rose in early fall as shoppers spent a little more, but stores say they've seen a sales slowdown since Halloween, putting merchants more on edge.
The promotional blitz typical for the traditional start of the holiday shopping season has high stakes for retailers who've suffered through a year of sales declines. It's also important for the broader economy, which could use a kickstart from consumer spending.
Black Friday gets its name because it traditionally was the day when huge crowds would push stores into "the black," or profitability. But the weekend doesn't provide a forecast for the rest of the season, which accounts for as much as 40 percent of annual sales and profits for many stores.
Still, retailers closely study buying patterns for the Thanksgiving weekend to gauge shoppers' mindset - what kinds of items they're buying, what deals are luring them.
Stores need to perform well for the traditional start because chances are slim they'll be able to make up for lost sales for the rest of the season.
Associated Press Writer Lisa Cornwell in Cincinnati and AP
Retail Writers Betsey Vereckey and Mae Anderson in New York City
contributed to this report.
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