Black Friday crowds eager to spend

Many bargain-hungry shoppers skip Thanksgiving meal to queue up for Black Friday deals on toys, cashmere sweaters and laptops.

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By Parija B. Kavilanz, CNNMoney.com senior writer

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A Black Friday bargain hunter takes a break at the Marshall Town Center regional mall in Marshalltown, Iowa.
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Discounts on power tools were a big draw at a Sears store in the Lufkin Mall in Lufkin, Texas.
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By 5 a.m., this bin selling down comforters was empty at a Sears store in the Columbia Mall, Grand Forks, N.D.
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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Although Black Friday seemed to be missing the usual mayhem associated with it, the good news for merchants was that shoppers eagerly spent money on toys, cashmere sweaters, Snuggie blankets and gadgets at juicy discounts .

"What I've noticed so far is that [consumer] traffic is on par with last year, but people are buying more," said Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst with market research firm NPD Group.

"They are going into stores with the pure intention of spending money. They have their stores, products and prices all picked out," he said.

The first indication of just how many consumers bagged bargains will be available Saturday when store sales traffic tracker ShopperTrak releases its Black Friday report.

The National Retail Federation (NRF) is expected to release its report Sunday estimating how much shoppers spent over the Black Friday weekend and where they shopped.

Compared to previous years, Cohen said the Black Friday atmosphere appeared to "be more tame."

"Look, retailers have been educating consumers for days before Black Friday on what their deals are going to be and on what items," said Cohen. "That's partly why we're not seeing the frenziness."

To his point, although the Toys R Us flagship store in Times Square had lines that were hundreds deeps for its midnight opening on Black Friday, it wasn't unruly at any point

At the Best Buy (BBY, Fortune 500) store in Holmdel, N.J., more than 500 people calmly gathered for the 5 a.m. Black Friday opening, some as early as 3 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, to score early bird deals such as a Garmin GPS device for $99.99 and an 4 GB Intel laptop for under $400. (Best Buy combats doorbuster scalpers)

More importantly, Cohen said "pent-up" demand among consumers, who really haven't loosened their purse strings all year, will play a pivotal role for sellers this Black Friday.

"Who would have thought that cashmere sweaters at half-off are suddenly the hottest item today?," he said.

Elsewhere, Zhu Zhu, the electronic pet hamster was flying off shelves at Toys R Us and emerged as the frontrunner for this year's must-have toy. (Black Friday shoppers hear the call of Zhu Zhu)

"Retailers came out swinging for Black Friday, offering some of the holiday season's lowest prices on electronics, appliances, apparel and toys," said Tracy Mullin, president of the NRF, an industry trade group, in a statement. "Budget-focused shoppers seemed to be pleasantly surprised with post-Thanksgiving deals, which many retailers will extend into Saturday and even Sunday."

Power tools and Snuggies selling out

Sears (SHLD, Fortune 500) spokesman Tom Aiello said pre-dawn crowds outside its stores were " a little bit more than last year."

The department store chain reported an average of 300 to 400 shoppers lined up for its 4 a.m. opening on Black Friday.

Aiello agreed that the situation was mostly tame. "After the incident at a Wal-Mart last Black Friday, everyone has stepped up plans to make this a safe day," Aiello said.

He was referring to an incident in which a Wal-Mart (WMT, Fortune 500) employee was killed in a stampede at a New York store.

To help defuse waiting crowds this year, Wal-Mart extended the hours of many of its stores that were not already open 24 hours.

That strategy seemed to work at one St. Louis-area Wal-Mart location. Rather than queuing up outside the store's entrance, customers found that the biggest wait was at the cash register.

Checkout lines snaked throughout the store, with some shoppers waiting an hour or more before carting away plasma and HDTVs and other deeply discounted items for holiday shopping season.

"Customers realize, too, that they have to take a step back," Aiello said.

The top sellers at Sears included a Craftsman drill set for $39.99, down from its original price of $79.99, as well as home-related goods such as luggage, comforters and the Snuggie blanket.

"Snuggies are selling fast for $9.99 at out Kmart stores," Aiello said. "And our layaway section is jammed. People are buying the special deals and putting them on layaway."

Wally Brewster, spokesman for General Growth Properties (GGP), the second-largest mall operator, said shopper traffic at its malls "has been fairly steady throughout the morning."

He estimated that the company's Jordan Creek Town Center mall in West Des Moines, Iowa, had about 35,000 shoppers by 2:35 a.m. CT, up from about 10,000 shoppers who arrived at the mall for its midnight opening.

"We have noticed that these people aren't rushing to get into stores," he said. "They are walking in and enjoying the experience."

One reason for the more controlled scenes, Brewster said, was that many retailers gave substantial incentives such as free gift cards on purchases in addition to doorbuster discounts. "So people are still finding deals even if they miss the early bird items," he said.

Will midnight openings become the norm?

About 130 of Disney's 205 retail stores in the United States opened their doors at midnight Friday.

"It's been a good day for us," said Jim Fielding, president of Disney Store Worldwide. "We were very busy until 3:00 a.m. Now the traffic is more steady."

Fielding said hot sellers at its stores were toddler dolls, classic dolls, Buzz and Woody action figures from "Toy Story" and $10 plush toys.

"I would say that shoppers are focused on value," said Fielding. "But you could find value at $10 or at $50."

This year, more retailers opened their stores at midnight instead of the typical 5 a.m. Black Friday openings.

Fielding said the extra pre-dawn hours of business worked for Disney stores. "We're able to better manage the demand and spread [customer] traffic throughout the day," he said. "This may not become the norm for Black Friday for all retailers, but I think we will continue to be committed to it for the foreseeable future."

Tough challenge for merchants

The day after Thanksgiving is dubbed "Black Friday" because it traditionally marks the day of the year when retailers finally move out of the red, indicating losses, and into the black, representing profits.

But despite the hype surrounding Black Friday as the "unofficial" start to holiday gift shopping, it's not the busiest shopping day of the year. That day invariably is the Saturday before Christmas.

Still, for retailers, November and December are crucial sales months because the combined period can account for half, or more, of their sales and profits for the full year.

Although retailers know that they're facing an uphill battle to grow sales amid a tepid spending environment, the hope is that this year's holiday season will at least be an improvement from the previous year.

The NRF expects holiday sales to decline 1% versus a 3.4% drop in holiday sales the previous year.

The group maintains that even though many Americans have had a year to adjust to the recession, continued job losses and stagnant income growth are forcing many consumers to restrain their shopping impulses and shop only for necessities.

Overall, more bargain hunters are expected to hit stores on Black Friday and the weekend. The total is expected to be about 134 million, up from 128 million a year ago, according to the NRF.

"More shoppers will come out today than a year ago," said Britt Beemer, a retail industry expert and chairman of America's Research Group. "But consumers are so concerned about money that if and when the deals are gone, so are they."

-- CNNMoney.com staff writers Julianne Pepitone, David Ellis and Aaron Smith contributed to this report. To top of page

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