'Black Friday' comes early for some retailers

'Black Friday' comes early for some retailers (Reuters)

LOS ANGELES -- Bargain hunters flocked to U.S. stores late Thursday and overnight Friday, searching for deals while fretting about their own shaky economic well-being.

Retailers were hoping for more shoppers like Shawn Elzia as the annual Black Friday bargain stampede marked the unofficial start of what is widely expected to be a middling holiday shopping season.

The Brooklyn, New York teacher, one of hundreds of thousands of shoppers jostling for deals around the country, said he ended up spending about 25 percent more than he planned, even while worrying about the state of the economy.

"I did not expect such deals," the 33-year old said as he left a Macy's store in Jersey City, New Jersey clutching bags full of clothing for himself and his family.

"It's slashed down to the bones," he said. "There were some great discounts if you showed up early."

Even as eager shoppers emerged from stores lugging big-screen TVs and bags full of video games and toys, it was far from certain that stretched consumers will be pulling out their wallets for much more than the best deals this year.

"Americans are still worried about jobs, still worried about the economy, they're still worried about debt of the country," said Mike Thielmann, group executive vice president at J.C. Penney.

"I don't think you can take for granted that they've got more money in their pocket or they're interested in buying this year or you can take your prices up," he said. "I don't think our economy or the consumer confidence is there yet."

Shopper-related injuries were popular topics on social networks such as Twitter. A shopper at a Los Angeles-area Walmart used pepper spray on a throng of shoppers and there was a shooting in a Walmart parking lot in the Oakland area.

In 2008, a security officer working at a Walmart on Black Friday was trampled to death by a crowd.

Competition among the retailers was fierce as it was among shoppers, with some stores pushing their openings and specials up to Thanksgiving night on Thursday.

The term "Black Friday" is generally accepted to refer to the time when retailers start to turn profitable for the year, although the phrase's origin is unclear.

What is clear is that while it is the busiest day of the year in terms of store traffic, it does not always mean that sales will soar for the season.

Despite brisk sales right after Thanksgiving in 2008 and 2009, total holiday season sales fell as the recession gripped the country.

The National Retail Federation, an industry trade group, expects 152 million people to hit stores this weekend, up 10.1 percent from last year.

Yet it expects sales for the full November-December holiday season to rise just 2.8 percent, well below the pace of last year when sales rose 5.2 percent.

Shares of most retailers were flat to up slightly in early trading on Friday.

LUXURY STORES BIG WINNERS

Luxury chains such as Saks Inc and those catering to lower-income shoppers, such as dollar stores, are expected to do well this shopping season. Those in the middle are expected to have a tough time winning over shoppers without the cache of the high-end set or the deep discounts others offer.