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Early Black Friday sales appear to pay off for retailers

An early kickoff to the holiday shopping season appeared to pay off for retailers, who bet correctly that extended late-night hours would draw even more bargain hunters to the annual Black Friday extravaganza.

The shopping frenzy, although marred by a pepper spray incident at a San Fernando Valley Wal-Mart, bodes well for increased consumer spending as the year draws to a close. It would be the latest in a series of modest improvements to an economy still trying to shake free from the lingering effects of the devastating recession of 2007-09.

“People have had so many years of recession that they want to spend money and feel good about themselves,” said Ron Friedman, a retail expert at advisory and accounting firm Marcum in Los Angeles. “And many people have set money aside and are paying off their credit cards more, so people can spend a little bit more than last year.”

PHOTOS: Black Friday frenzy

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This is a make-or-break season for retailers, and they pulled out the stops. Wal-Mart rolled out some of its sale items to shoppers at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. Other major chains including Target, Best Buy, Macy’s and Kohl’s all opened at midnight for the first time.

At times, shoppers battled for bargains. Several brawls were reported, including at the Wal-Mart in Porter Ranch — where police say a woman jostling other shoppers for an X-Box game console pulled out a can of pepper spray to ward off rivals.

“People started screaming, pulling and pushing each other, and then the whole area filled up with pepper spray,” said Sylmar resident Alejandra Seminario, 24, who was in the next aisle over at the time looking for Barbie dolls.

At least 10 people required treatment after the incident, which occurred just after 10 p.m. Thursday night, said Det. Gus Villanueva of the Los Angeles Police Department. Police are looking for the woman, who is believed to be in her 30s, 5 feet 3 and about 140 pounds.

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Drama aside, early signs pointed to a healthy kickoff to the holiday shopping season. Toys R Us, Sears and Target reported longer lines at many of their stores, while the general manager at the Beverly Center said that foot traffic on Black Friday was up significantly over last year.

Many shoppers said they planned to spend more freely during the upcoming weeks after months and sometimes years of thriftiness.

“We hit up Best Buy, Fry’s Electronics, Target, Krispy Kreme and then we came here,” said Jules Blandon, 19, a McDonald’s worker lounging with friends at 5:30 a.m. at the Americana at Brand mall in Glendale after six hours and several bags of goods.

His friend, Adrian Villanueva, also 19, of Glendale, quipped, “I have a whole route. If you don’t have a plan, you’ll be walking around like a turkey with its head cut off.”

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After severely cutting back last holiday season, Wendy Cox, 35, of Rialto saved all year to splurge — at least for the kids in her extended family. At the Toys R Us in Ontario, the homemaker pushed a shopping cart brimming with Lego sets and Transformer action figures.

“Last year’s Christmas was really, really tight,” Cox said. “You have to grab and buy when you can — when the checks are good and you have a little extra money.”

Francie Echeverria, 20, echoed that sentiment while shopping with her sisters, mother and aunt at South Coast Plaza, the second stop in their annual Black Friday mall circuit.

The nursing student from Santa Ana said the family had a much more relaxed approach to holiday shopping this year with a budget of $1,500, a healthy bump up from the last few years.

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“We’ve been saving since the middle of the year,” said Echeverria, who was perched on a bench outside Bloomingdale’s taking a break from shopping. “We’re definitely buying more ‘wants’ this year.”

Although it was too soon to tell definitively whether Black Friday was a success, several retail analysts said they expected sales to be up based on the turnout they saw.

“I think Black Friday bodes pretty well for the holiday season,” said Ken Perkins of research firm Retail Metrics Inc., who was out at several malls in the Boston area. “The traffic levels were pretty good, especially in the middle of the night, and that should project well for the rest of the holiday season.”

Jackie Fernandez, a retail partner at the accounting firm Deloitte & Touche, was at the Glendale Galleria on Friday and liked what she saw.

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“The real question mark is whether this phenomenon will continue into the weekend and afterward, or if it will just trail off,” she said.

The National Retail Federation has estimated that holiday sales will increase to $465.6 billion this year, up about 2.8% compared with the previous year. It will release its estimate of Black Friday weekend sales Sunday.

According to a Gallup survey, consumers say they’ll spend an average of $764 for the holidays this year, up 7% from what they estimated at this time last year.

Retailers often make 25% to 40% of their annual sales during the last two months of the year. Although Black Friday may be over, expect more sales and promotions in the weeks to come.

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“We’ll have deals every day from now through the rest of the holidays for customers looking for deals,” said Neil Friedman, president of Toys R Us in the U.S. “We can fit any family’s budget.”

Target executive Cary Strouse indicated that it’s going to be a “very competitive” environment, which will be good news for consumers.

“We will certainly be in the game, making sure Target is the place for guests to shop,” said Strouse, senior vice president of Target’s West region, which includes California.

But not everyone is spending more. At the Grove shopping center in the Fairfax District, Carman Wimsatt, 40, stood in line outside the Apple store to buy an iPad after dropping $250 at Gap on graphic T-shirts, sweat pants and sweaters — all for 40% off — for her kids and family friends.

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She decided to abandon the line at Apple after calling her husband and deciding together that the sale wasn’t worth it. “To save $40 off an iPad is not worth the line,” said Wimsatt, a statistics professor from Los Angeles.

She said they had slashed their holiday budget to $2,000 this year from $3,000 in 2010.

PHOTOS: Black Friday frenzy

“Last year I bought a $1,500 Macbook without talking to my husband,” Wimsatt said. “This year I’m calling him about a $500 iPad.”

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Although the big turnouts were good news for retailers, customers weren’t always as pleased.

Ryan Fuerte, a 37-year-old auditor, and his wife, Jennifer, abandoned plans to buy a $98 Sansui flat-screen television at a Wal-Mart in Duarte on Thanksgiving night, saying the aggressive crowds made them uncomfortable.

“It was just madness,” Fuerte said. “We couldn’t handle the craziness.”

shan.li@latimes.com

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tiffany.hsu@latimes.com

Times staff writers Hailey Branson-Potts, Dalina Castellanos, Angel Jennings, Ricardo Lopez and Rosanna Xia contributed to this report.


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