The rush is on

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 1, 2003

Suffolk News-Herald

Pushing her overfilled shopping cart through the jammed northern Suffolk Wal-Mart early Friday morning, Donna Little gleefully calculated her savings.

&uot;I got a computer, a 19-inch television and a bunch of toys,&uot; said the Outer Banks resident, in the Western Branch area visiting family for Thanksgiving. She estimated that her early morning shopping spree in the College Drive supercenter saved her at least $700.

Email newsletter signup

&uot;It was still dark when I got here this morning,&uot; Little said. &uot;The store was crowded and I probably spent half my time waiting to check out.

&uot;But it was worth the wait, well worth it.&uot;

Dawn Pierce, who by noon had made the rounds of three major downtown Suffolk retailers – Lowe’s, Belk’s and Wal-Mart – said she too had gotten good early morning bargains.

&uot;I was out and around by 7:30 a.m.,&uot; said the Suffolk resident as she tried on a pair of shoes. &uot;I’m finished my Christmas shopping earlier this morning.

&uot;I’m shopping for me now.&uot;

Melvin and Tracey Jackson of Baltimore, Md., in town spending Thanksgiving with family, began the journey home on Friday. But on the way out of Suffolk, they dropped by Belk’s to pick up a couple of Christmas gifts.

&uot;A friend who knew we were looking for a television picked us up one at Wal-Mart,&uot; said Tracey Jackson. &uot;And this morning, we’re running into Belk’s to pick up a Christmas present for my sister-in-law.&uot;

Suffolk’s shoppers were among the throng to hit retailers nationwide on Friday, traditionally one of the busiest shopping days of the year. Braving early morning hours, packed shopping malls and crowed checkout lines, shoppers searched for Christmas gifts at the bargain prices.

Retailers worked to draw in holiday business with the usual holiday lures, including extended shopping hours and early bird specials.

The early-morning sales were a big draw in Belk’s and Wal-Mart, said store representatives.

Sam Wiggs, manager of the downtown Suffolk Wal-Mart, was hopeful that business on Friday was indicative of the rest of the holiday season.

&uot;Things started off with a blast this morning. We had wall-to-wall people in here,&uot; said Wiggs. &uot;Most of our shoppers have been going for our electronics and toy items.

&uot;I think we’re going to be looking at a healthy Christmas shopping season this year, …particularly since there is more of a sense of normalcy here (than in previous recent holidays),&uot; he continued. &uot;More of our (military) folks are home to celebrate the holiday season this year.&uot;

Like Wiggs, Susan Obershaw, assistant manager of the Belk’s, is hopeful the store’s successful post-Thanksgiving shopping day reflects the rest of the year.

&uot;Our door-busters and early morning specials were very popular,&uot; said Obershaw. &uot;When we opened at 6 a.m. this morning, there were a lot of people out there waiting to come in.&uot;

That scene in Suffolk played out at malls and departments stores across the country.

Imbia Barry of Marietta, Ga., lost her scarf as hundreds of shoppers, some of them running at full speed, crowded into Wal-Mart when the doors opened at 6 a.m.

&uot;It was an adrenaline rush,&uot; said Barry, who arrived at 3:30 a.m. She said she bought two HP Pavilion desktop computer sets with 17-inch monitors for $498 apiece, one set each for her mother and child. She said they normally cost about $800.

At the K-B Toy store at the King of Prussia mall near Philadelphia, 23-year-old Rogeline Jean was toting a pair of giant green electronic Hulk Hands and two train sets for her 5-year-old twin sons.

&uot;At first, I was just grabbing stuff. It was overwhelming,&uot; said Jean, who planned to spend $2,500 Friday.

Inderpreet Farmahan, 26, said he arrived at Best Buy in Little Rock, Ark., at 2 a.m. to buy a computer system.

&uot;I will grab my laptop, then get my hard drive,&uot; Farmahan said as he waited in line outside. &uot;My hands are freezing. I could drop it. (But) you’re saving $400. I can stand four hours in the cold for that.&uot;

Outside a Best Buy in Coralville, Iowa, about 500 people braved the 20-degree temperature to get a jump on bargains.

&uot;I’ve been here since about 3 a.m.,&uot; said Matt Van Berkum, who said he would spend about $500 on a home theater system.

With an improving economy, merchants are more hopeful this year that consumers will keep buying throughout the season, not only when the merchandise is 50 percent off.

&uot;It’s not going to be easy. Stores have conditioned consumers to buy on sale,&uot; said Burt Flickinger, managing partner at the consulting firm Strategic Resource Group in New York.

Sears, Roebuck and Co.’s early bird specials, from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m., include $99 grills and $299.99 combination DVD camcorders. At J.C. Penney Co., consumers can get 50 percent reductions on holiday decorations, and 35 percent to 50 percent discounts on selected apparel.

The Washington-based National Retail Federation projects total holiday sales to be up 5.7 percent to $217.4 billion from last year. That compares with a modest 2.2 percent increase in 2002.

Stores should also benefit from a quirk in the calendar _ the holiday season has 27 shopping days, instead of last year’s 26.

Still, while many retailers believe the holiday 2003 season will be better than last year, the question is by how much. The economy is on the rebound, but the job market, though improving, is still sluggish.

Patti Jennings, 39, of Strongsville, Ohio, said she was spending less because her husband had been out of work.

&uot;I’m probably cutting back this year …. we’re trying to play catch-up,&uot; said Jennings, who bought her children gifts including a watch and $11 jeans on sale for $7.

Stores also are aiming to avoid getting stuck with mounds of holiday leftovers by entering the season with inventories that average 7 percent below last year’s levels.

Meanwhile, online holiday sales are expected to remain a bright spot.

Forrester Research estimated that online sales from Thanksgiving weekend to Christmas will increase 42 percent over a year ago to $12.2 billion. The results include travel and auction sites.

While the Thanksgiving weekend starts the shopping spree, it no longer is the busiest period of the season. Last year, the weekend accounted for 10.1 percent of holiday sales.

The busiest period – which is becoming increasingly important _ is the last week before Christmas, which accounted for 41 percent a year ago.

The weekend’s business, however, is hardly a barometer of how the rest of the season will fare. Last year, stores enjoyed a strong Thanksgiving weekend, but sales quickly deteriorated.

For now, at least, the rush is on.

At least 200 people lined up outside a Wal-Mart in Marietta, Ga. before it opened Friday.

&uot;People were running,&uot; said Christie Vestal, who showed up before the store opened at 6 a.m. &uot;They had stacks of five DVD players.&uot;

The Associated Press contributed to this story.