US shoppers jam malls attracted by pre-dawn discounts

U.S. shoppers who have been worrying about rising gas prices and falling home values in recent months now overcrowd malls and stores to buy goods  at a discount.

Friday's aggressive tactics - bigger discounts and expanded hours like midnight openings- apparently worked. Based on early reports, Macy's Inc., Toys "R" Us, K-B Toys Inc. and others that were noisy with discounts reported bigger crowds for the early morning bargains than a year ago. And electronic gadgets, particularly the hard-to-find Nintendo Wii, topped shoppers' wish lists, though frustrations were high among shoppers who could not get their hands on the limited bargains.

With the economy relying heavily on the consumer, however, it is crucial that the shopping euphoria the day after the Thanksgiving holiday lasts throughout the season, expected to be the weakest in five years.

"I'm really looking for the bargains this year because I'm losing my job; they're moving our plant to Mexico after the first of the year, so I have to be careful," said Tina Dillow of Ohio, who camped out at a Best Buy store at 3 a.m. because of a great deal on a laptop.

"The tougher economic conditions are driving more shoppers to take advantage of early bird specials," said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group.

Marshal Cohen, chief analyst at NPD Group Inc. agreed, but he noted shoppers were buying selectively. Overall, the biggest draws were consumer electronics, including flat-screen TVs, digital cameras, digital frames, and laptops. In toys, which have been battered by recalls of lead tainted Chinese toys, there were plenty of hits, including video games such as Activision Inc.'s "Guitar Hero III," toys related to Walt Disney Co.'s "Hannah Montana" and Smart Cycle from Mattel Inc.'s Fisher-Price, toy executives said.

Janet Hoffman, managing partner of the North American retail division of the consulting firm Accenture, believes that some parents, concerned about toy safety, may shift their purchases away from toys to video games and children's clothing. She added that sales of children's clothing fared unusually well Friday.

And while mainstream department stores such as Macy's and J.C. Penney Co., which hammered shoppers with big discounts Friday, seemed to pull in the crowds, traffic at mall-based apparel stores was disappointing, according to Wachovia Capital Markets LLC analyst John D. Morris. One problem is that there are not a lot of must-have fashions.

Macy's chief executive, Terry Lundgren, said 3,000 people started lining up at the Herald Square store in New York at 5 a.m, forcing the store to open at 5:30 a.m., a half hour earlier. That was up from about 2,500 people a year ago. Among some of the most popular early morning deals were Martha Stewart faux holiday trees, that were 50 percent off, and outerwear and sweaters, which were marked down by 40 percent to 50 percent.

"We all know that September and October were not great months, so there is some pent-up demand," Lundgren said. "We feel encouraged by the early signs."

Jerry Storch, chairman and CEO of Toys "R" Us Inc., which unveiled 101 early morning bargains, four times the number last year, reported 1,000 people waiting in line for the 5 a.m. opening at the Manhattan store, double the number a year ago.

Macy's, Toys "R" Us and others with locations in big cities also enjoyed increased business from foreign shoppers reveling in exchange rates that made discounts even deeper.

Melissa O'Brien, spokeswoman at Wal-Mart Stores Inc., only said "we are excited about today." Among the most popular items were flat-panel TVs and various toys, particularly from the "Transformers" line. Special offers on GPS units and digital frames were selling "very fast," she said.

Target Corp.'s spokeswoman Lena Michaud said traffic was strong based on a spot-check of stores. Gail Lavielle, spokeswoman at Sears Holdings Inc., which operates Sears, Roebuck and Co. and Kmart stores, reported traffic increases from a year ago.

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Author`s name Angela Antonova