Black Friday proper sees smaller crowds this year

When Nordstrom in Thousand Oaks opened its doors Friday at 8 a.m., Chuck Pierson had been awake for more than two hours after being dragged "kicking and groggily screaming" on his wife's quest to find perfect shoes.

The only fate that could be worse? Joining the hordes of shoppers who swarmed into stores the night before.

"Maybe I'm just old-fashioned, but Black Friday — fine," said the nursing instructor, 65. "Black Thursday evening? I don't think so."

The annual Friday consumption extravaganza remains the busiest shopping event of the year, according to ShopperTrak. Americans turned out in droves to spend Hanukkah gift money, knock names off Christmas lists and hit up malls in the name of family tradition.

This time, though, crowds were smaller as bad weather and early Thanksgiving retail openings diluted some of the big shopping day's chaos.

For merchants and economists anxiously watching sales numbers, the big unknown is how freely customers are willing to spend in the face of a weak job market and cuts to government aid programs.

Some stores rely on the holidays for as much as 40% of their annual revenue. The National Retail Federation estimates that total sales for the season will increase 3.9% to $602 billion this year — a boost that many analysts attribute to deep discounting, which would hurt profits.

Other forecasts are less rosy. Investment house Morgan Stanley predicts the worst holiday sales since 2008, when the U.S. economy was in recession. With consumer spending making up about 70% of U.S. economic activity, a lean Christmas could have hefty repercussions.

"If the holiday season isn't a good one, it's saying something about consumers' sentiment and their willingness to spend," said RBC Capital Markets analyst Howard Tubin. "It's the biggest purchasing catalyst of the year."

A hyper-focused shopper is emerging, more resistant to impulse purchases and less patient with long lines and browsing, analysts said.

"Deal mania is alive and well," said Thom Blischok, chief retail strategist for Booz & Co., who spent the last two days watching piles of crock pots and 700-thread-count sheets fly off shelves. "Sixty-five percent of Americans are survivalists, living paycheck to paycheck, and they're looking for every way possible to save money."

Around the Southland, shoppers were keeping an eye on their budgets.

South Los Angeles medical assistant Francine Garcia, 32, wore flats to the 5 p.m. Thanksgiving opening of the Toys R Us in Bell Gardens, where she scored six bags of games and play sets. The haul exceeded her $100 limit by only 12 cents.

Pasadena healthcare worker Kim Phelan, 33, showed up at the 6 p.m. opening of the Target in Eagle Rock looking for a video game pack with buy-two-get-one-free avatars for her 6-year-old son. She stood with 1,000 people for two hours, justifying her efforts by saying "it's still a bad time financially" for the country.

"When you are saving over $100 on a bunch of stuff, it's kind of worth this wait," she said.

For some, it's worth a fight.

On Friday, the term #Walmartfights was trending on Twitter, linking to customers' videos of tussles over televisions and tug-of-wars over cookware.

In Rialto, authorities said, a police officer suffered a fractured right hand and finger Thursday night while trying to separate two brawling men at a Wal-Mart. In Illinois, a police officer responding to shoplifting reports at a Kohl's store shot and wounded the driver of a car that was dragging another police officer, police said. And in Virginia, authorities said, a skirmish over a Wal-Mart parking spot led one man to stab another in the arm.

Labor activists had another conflict in mind. Black Friday protests were planned at Wal-Mart stores nationwide, including a 6 a.m. event in Ontario that drew some 150 people demanding higher wages and better working conditions. Ten protesters were arrested.

Wal-Mart said its Black Friday results were "record-breaking," with more than 22 million shoppers on Thanksgiving and nearly 400 million page views on Target said Thanksgiving brought shoppers "in unprecedented numbers."

Online sales were strong on Thanksgiving, rising 19.7% from Thanksgiving last year, according to IBM Digital Analytics Benchmark.

Shopping, however, won't be consistent throughout the holiday season.

"Be on the lookout for a steep lull in sales over the next two weeks as consumers catch their breath while waiting for their wallets to be replenished," NPD analyst Marshal Cohen wrote in a blog post.

The Thursday night rush at the Macy's in the Westfield Santa Anita mall left sweater displays in disarray and weary shoppers collapsed in chairs. At the Citadel Outlets in Commerce, Echo Park retail salesman Leonel Lopez, 25, slumped to the floor surrounded by massive Disney Store bags after he and three relatives spent more than $1,000 before midnight.

"We've run out of money at this point," he said.

But traffic at many upscale retailers — such as the Neiman Marcus at Fashion Island in Newport Beach — was subdued. At 8:30 a.m. Friday, Gardena office supervisor Dionne Morrissette, 46, picked up a $255 pair of leopard-print gloves as well as a purse that was 30% off. The luxury retailer was sparsely populated.

"This is for the die-hards, I guess," she said.

Some retailers — Costco, Radio Shack, REI, Sur La Table — began their sales, almost defiantly, on Black Friday instead of Thanksgiving Day. TJX Cos., which owns T.J. Maxx, Marshalls and HomeGoods, said in a statement that it was "pleased to give our associates the time to enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday with family and friends."

This year more major chains were open on Thanksgiving than ever before, meaning that retailers accustomed to the Black Friday sprint had to adjust to a two-day marathon.

To keep shoppers coming after Thursday's openings, Citadel Outlets encouraged its retailers to introduce new deals throughout the weekend instead of relying on one round of super-low bargains. Toys R Us employed rolling door-buster promotions to retain shoppers while also introducing products to shelves in waves.

The Irvine Spectrum's ploy to maintain momentum involved free ice skating, valet parking and Ferris wheel rides.

Agoura Hills residents Elisa Knigin, 53, and daughter Mackenzie, 16, went to the Oaks Mall in Thousand Oaks at 9 p.m. Thursday as part of a long tradition of Black Friday shopping together.

"It's not even about the stuff you get, it's just the memories you have 20, 30 years from now," said Elisa Knigin, a healthcare finance worker. "The crazies like us are going to come out."

Times staff writers Alicia Banks, James Barragan, Paresh Dave, Saba Hamedy, Soumya Karlamangla and Ryan Menezes contributed to this report.

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