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Start of shopping 'marathon' looks promising, retailers say

, and Contact ReporterChicago Tribune
Retailers report brisk sales as Black Friday kicks off.

Decked out in matching uniforms — black, long-sleeved jerseys with "Santa Baby" on the front — Christy Horn and several relatives took a midmorning break from Black Friday shopping for a photo shoot in front of a mall Christmas tree display, making for a surprisingly bucolic postcard. A thicket of fake evergreens and faux snow were the only background, with no other shoppers in sight.

"In past years, before they did the Thursday shopping, it was jampacked," said Horn, 46, who hit Westfield Hawthorn mall in Vernon Hills at 7 a.m. Friday with a crew of aunts, nieces, mothers and daughters, upholding a 20-year Black Friday tradition. "Ever since they started opening on Thursdays, you get front-row parking and no lines."

Diluted by Thursday night bargains, promotions that stretch out over the entire month and a rapid growth in online shopping, Black Friday verged on just another day for some veterans of the annual shopping ritual, historically the kickoff to the retail industry's critical holiday buying season. One retail expert predicts Black Friday will lose its title as the busiest shopping day this season as Thanksgiving Day eats away at its sales.

Retailers weren't complaining. They reported brisk sales online and in stores Thursday, stoking optimism for a shopping season expected to ring up retail sales of $616.9 billion, topping last year by 4.1 percent, according to the National Retail Federation. Spending during November and December accounts for about one-fifth of the retail industry's annual revenues.

Some activists hoped to disrupt the Black Friday shopping blitz in protest of a Missouri grand jury decision not to indict Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.

More than 50 demonstrators gathered at Water Tower Place for "Brown Friday" in hopes of dissuading Magnificent Mile shoppers with chants like "Freedom is the only option. If we don't get no justice, you don't get no profit." The protest was part of a larger national movement catching fire on social media under hashtags such as #NotOneDime and #BlackoutBlackFriday.

But organizers, who handed out fliers with information to passersby on where to support black-owned businesses, faced competition about 20 feet away, where retail employees doled out free $30 gift cards.

"A lot of people are walking around us and ignoring us — and that's to be expected," organizer Kristiana Colon said. "The fact that people are more concerned with a discount at Old Navy than a young man's life is why we're here."

Though data on store traffic and sales won't come out until the weekend, the National Retail Federation issued a statement Friday saying that it was encouraged by what it had seen on Thanksgiving and early Black Friday shopping.

"Reports of record-breaking online sales and store crowds point to a more confident and savvy holiday shopper who knows when, where and how to take advantage of all the promotions retailers are offering," said federation president and CEO Matthew Shay.

"It's important to remember, however, that despite getting out of the gates quickly, the holiday season is a marathon and not a sprint and we expect retailers to continue to be extremely competitive as they chase after the $616 billion that is on the line this holiday season," Shay said.

For many deal-seekers, the shopping had begun the day before, as retailers flung their doors open at 6 p.m. Thursday and earlier — and not just at big-box centers and department stores. A jovial holiday shopping mood coursed through Michigan Avenue on Thanksgiving night, when H&M opened for the first time between 6 p.m. and midnight, Aldo shoe store extended its hours until 2 a.m. and Forever 21 stayed open through the night. Several Michigan Avenue stores open Thanksgiving Day, from Guess to Ann Taylor, boasted 50 percent off discounts for the entire store.

Some shoppers made it an all-night affair.

Annette and Ricardo Hernandez had already been shopping for 10 hours straight when they found themselves snacking on Cinnabons while waiting for Champs Sports to open at 6 a.m. Friday at Woodfield Mall. They had nabbed deals on a gaming chair, books and clothes at Wal-Mart, Target, Kohl's and Best Buy before heading to the Schaumburg mall, and though they'd already finished most of their holiday shopping by early Black Friday, they said they would keep up the browsing and buying into the afternoon.

"It's fun," said Annette Hernandez, 38, of Roselle. "We get to do the overnight thing, we don't have the kids to drag around, and the other part of it, it's just fun watching what other people are doing."

Franca Hartman finished working a Thanksgiving evening shift at Old Navy in Mount Prospect, where the crowds were "ridiculous," she said, before her sister and cousins picked her up and whisked her to Woodfield Mall shortly before 2 a.m. Friday.

Hartman, who had started to tire, perked up after some coffee and a visit to Sephora.

"The sales!" said Hartman, 17, of Des Plaines. "I have to get them."

The annual spending bonanza arrives amid several promising economic factors.

Gas prices were down to just under $3 in the Chicago metro area for a gallon of regular unleaded, compared with $3.40 a year ago. Nationally, the average price was $2.79, down from $3.28 the previous year.

The Chicago metro area's unemployment rate fell to 6 percent in October from 6.2 percent in September, an improvement from the 8.5 percent rate of the prior year.

Not all is merry and bright. Wages have been flat for years. And consumer confidence fell slightly in November.

But retailers were enthusiastic.

Wal-Mart said 22 million customers shopped at its stores Thursday and its website had 300 million page views, a record. Online revenues on Thanksgiving were second only to last year's Cyber Monday, which is the Monday after Thanksgiving when online deals are king. Video games, wireless prepaid phones, HDTVs and baby items were popular online items, Wal-Mart said. Tablets, TVs, sheets, children's apparel and video gaming were the top sellers in the store.

Sears said lines were on par or longer than those last year, and that home appliance departments were the most crowded, as people snapped up mixers, toasters and coffee makers, spokeswoman Jamie Stein said.

Macy's said all 32 doors of its State Street store were bursting with customers when it opened at 6 p.m. Thursday. Winter coats, cashmere sweaters, small electronics and luggage sets were selling well, said spokeswoman Andrea Schwartz.

Online activity, meanwhile, rose sharply. According to Adobe Digital Index, $1.33 billion was spent Thursday on retail websites, up 25 percent from last year. Twenty-nine percent of those sales came from mobile devices, up from 21 percent last year, evidence of the growing importance of smartphones as a shopping tool, according to Adobe, which measures millions of visits to more than 4,500 U.S. retail sites, including those of the top 500 U.S. retailers.

Bill Martin, president of Chicago-based ShopperTrak, which measures in-store shopping patterns, said shoppers' energy levels seemed high and moods positive as he made his store rounds Thursday and Friday.

"The consumer seems excited; the retailer seems to be able to meet the expectations of the consumer," Martin said. He expects that as Thanksgiving Day sales erode the importance of Black Friday, the Saturday before Christmas will take over as the busiest shopping day of the season.

Stephanie Gerby, 21, a retail employee at Orland Square mall, expressed less enthusiasm. She started work when the mall opened at 6 p.m. Thanksgiving Day, went home for a couple of hours to sleep and was back at work at 6 a.m. Friday.

"It was elbow to elbow on Thanksgiving," she said. "People were sitting on the floor waiting to get into the Pink store. I just don't get it. Everyone has also been rude and cranky. I can't wait until this day is over."

Mary Biagini, 38, of Gurnee, and her mother, Diane Musillo, 62, of Carol Stream, said the crowds were not the only thing in short supply this year. Resting on the ledge of a garden planter at Hawthorn mall, they bemoaned that the best deals are long gone by Black Friday and pondered whether this year might be the end of a 20-year mother-daughter tradition.

They refuse to bolt from the Thanksgiving table in search of bargains, as "it's a family day," Biagini said.

By midmorning they had hit Bath & Body Works, Carson's, Gymboree and Victoria's Secret, with 50 percent off a 4-pound tin of chocolate from Fannie May, their proudest score. Biagini said they would each spend a couple of hundred dollars on Black Friday, "much less" than last year.

"It used to be worth it to get up at the crack of dawn and wait in line because you were getting such a great deal," Biagini said. "The deals aren't that great — what are you going get up for, what are you going to wait in line for? It's not worth it anymore."

Tribune reporter Tony Briscoe and freelancers Joseph Ruzich and Linda Girardi contributed.

Erin Chan Ding is a freelance reporter.

aelejalderuiz@tribpub.com

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