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Shoppers Reach for Wallets Early

Associated Press Writer

Pour the coffee into a thermos, put the mittens on, and line up before dawn with hundreds of fellow bargain-hunters.

Those were the marching orders Friday for families nationwide at the beginning of the holiday shopping season, with the super-organized arriving armed with cellphones and detailed game plans as they snapped up hot gift items such as portable video players and flat-screen TVs.

At a Best Buy store in Plano, Texas, Martin Clouser stood watch just after 6 a.m. over a shopping cart stuffed with a printer, television set, a $14 DVD player and a voucher for a desktop computer. His wife, Teri, was hunting the aisles for more gifts.

“It’s like a war plan,” Clouser said. “She runs in ahead of me, and I get the cart. She picks out all the good bargains and carries as much as she can, then throws it in the cart and moves to the next station.”

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The couple had good reason to be organized. They arrived at 4 a.m., only to find several hundred people already in a line that would snake around the store and down the block.

Mindy Williams arrived at an Oklahoma City Wal-Mart fresh from her 12-hour nursing shift at an intensive-care unit. Still wearing hospital scrubs and a stethoscope, Williams snapped up a television, a Big Wheel and a few scooters before midmorning.

“It’s kind of exciting to see if you can get it all done in a day,” said Williams. “It’s the challenge.”

Despite freezing temperatures in some places, and huge crowds everywhere, shoppers came armed with lists, credit cards and precise game plans. They created shortages already in some popular gadget gifts.

Several merchants, including Toys R Us, KB Toys, and Sears, reported that traffic was as least as good as last year. Some stores, like Toys R Us, opened their doors even earlier than planned to accommodate the hordes of shoppers who were waiting in line before dawn.

At the flagship Toys R Us store in New York’s Times Square, giant poster images of SpongeBob SquarePants and “The Incredibles” loomed over shoppers, and seats on the indoor Ferris wheel were hard to come by.

The company’s U.S. president John Barbour said his store, and toys in general, were usually protected from dramatic economic fluctuations.

“What we find with parents is that they might cut back, but rarely are they going to cut back on their kids,” he said, watching thousands of shoppers from a third-story overlook.

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Karen Burk, a spokeswoman at Wal-Mart Stores, said it was too early to comment on business and traffic around the country. She said there “was a huge rush” at 6 a.m., however.

The world’s largest retailer drew throngs of shoppers with such deals as a $139 flat-screen 20-inch TV/DVD combination; $4.77 fondue sets; and $25 children’s bikes, she said.

At the Cabela’s in Wheeling, W. Va., elk-skin slippers on sale for $19.95 sold out within a half-hour. Another hot ticket item at the outfitter was a meat grinder half off of its usual $100 price tag, said John Castillo, the store’s marketing manager.

“There definitely seems to be more buying than a year ago,” said Tracy Mullin, president of the Washington-based National Retail Federation, who checked out three malls in Virginia on Friday.

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Stores are hoping that the shoppers will keep coming throughout the next month.

Already, hot items were selling out. At a Wal-Mart store in Alpharetta, Ga., just north of Atlanta, a supply of discounted personal video players from toy maker Hasbro Inc. sold out in just 12 minutes.

The National Retail Federation projects that total sales, after restaurant and auto sales are excluded, will increase 4.5% for the November-December period. That would be less than the 5.1% gain of a year earlier.


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