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Giving thanks for bargains

Hordes driven to find holiday deals, and retailers respond

Cathy Quinn waited in line at the CambridgeSide Galleria Best Buy. She is keeping a close eye on expenses this year. Cathy Quinn waited in line at the CambridgeSide Galleria Best Buy. She is keeping a close eye on expenses this year. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Michael B. Farrell
Globe Staff / November 26, 2011
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Lomalee Houston spent 10 hours in the cold on Thanksgiving night, waiting to get into Best Buy for a 42-inch TV she had her eye on.

For the 34-year-old mother of three, a baggage handler for American Airlines, it was a first-ever shopping trip on Black Friday. She was in line by 3:30 p.m., waiting with 1,500 shoppers outside the CambridgeSide Galleria mall.

When the doors opened at 1 a.m., she rushed in with the crowd. But the TVs were gone. She would head to a Target in Revere and then to Walmart in Lynn before finding a model she could afford.

“The economy is bad,’’ said Houston. “You have to stretch every dollar, and every dollar counts.’’

With holiday sales beginning on Thanksgiving night in some US cities and just after midnight across Massachusetts, big-box retailers and national chains started earlier than ever this year amid fierce competition for shoppers on tight budgets.

At stores around the region, where shoppers lined up by the hundreds, it was clear that many weren’t there just for the thrill of bargain-hunting. Many battled long lines, unruly crowds, and chilly temperatures to save money in a difficult economy.

“A lot of people I interviewed were young and really had a need to stretch their dollar,’’ said Marshal Cohen, chief analyst at NPD Group, a market research firm, who visited at least 78 stores in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut from Thursday night to Friday afternoon.

Shoppers were enticed to go out late, after Thanksgiving dinners, and in some cases eat their turkey while waiting in line, because “they were able to save a couple of hundred dollars,’’ he said.

Many stores opened just after midnight to capture consumers who were unwilling to wake up for 4 a.m. The big question for retailers, according to Cohen: Was it worth it to open earlier this year? “The answer is definitely yes.’’

Bruce Zheng hurried through Thanksgiving dinner with his family in Malden on Thursday, eager to land a spot at the Best Buy by 9 p.m. “I ran out the door. I was like, ‘Mom, everything was good, but I gotta go.’ ’’

He was lured out in hopes of picking up a $180 Lenovo laptop. But at that price, the laptops sold out quickly. Instead, he left with a 32-inch flat-screen TV and a DVD player, saving about $150.

At a Walmart in Framingham, Joyce Dailey of Hyde Park waited with shoppers who started arriving early on Thanksgiving Day for the store’s 4 a.m. opening on Black Friday. She said the sales were a lifeline for someone like her, with five children to buy for.

“I can’t afford it,’’ she said of buying gifts at regular prices. “I work in day care and I don’t have it.’’ To put presents under the tree this year, she’ll shop Walmart and Kmart exclusively. “I get paid twice a month and will have to wait till next month to shop again,’’ she said. Until then? “I pray.’’

Dolly Velez of Natick and Linda Kinney of Framingham were about to be the first shoppers inside Walmart yesterday. The friends, who camped outside the Framingham store at 8:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning, walked through the automatic doors at 4:01 a.m. with pride.

“I’m doing it for my grandchildren,’’ said Velez, who has six to buy for this Christmas. Her big-ticket item? An Xbox Kinect.

“Everything is so expensive, getting it for less is a big rush,’’ said Kinney, who saved $300 on games and other items.

Moments after the store opened, Jill Garcia of Framingham exited with a 32-inch HDTV protruding from her cart. She got the television for $188, a waffle iron for under $3, and a coffee maker for peanuts. “I’m excited, I’m all done,’’ she said.

Cathy Quinn of Cambridge is one of those who is watching expenses closely this year. Quinn, 61, said she is being treated for cancer and on leave from her administrative assistant’s job at MIT. But she also wanted a new television for her bedroom.

“I have cut back quite a bit. This was extra savings that I put aside, that I decided to treat myself with,’’ said Quinn, who went to the Best Buy at CambridgeSide Galleria for Black Friday sales.

While some shoppers fretted about high unemployment and the uncertain economy, analysts were forecasting slightly higher sales for Black Friday than a year ago. This year, consumer spending during the holiday season is expected to climb 2.8 percent over 2010, according to the National Retail Federation, generating about $465 billion.

Black Friday is important to merchants because it kicks off the holiday shopping season, a time when they typically bring in 25 to 40 percent of their annual revenue.

Carol Kelly, a sales associate at Macy’s at the Natick Mall, said shoppers were eager when the store opened at 12:30 a.m., but “they are being cautious. They are still buying inside their comfort zone. I think last year they were freer.’’

Black Friday is an early indicator for retailers of consumers’ shopping appetite for the season. (It got its name as a day when some merchants locked in a profit for the year, or moved “into the black.’’)

At the North Shore Mall in Peabody yesterday, it appeared that retailers were on track for a strong showing, according to Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts. “I’ve been going there for Black Friday for the last 20 years, and the numbers I saw today were phenomenal,’’ he said.

While for many, Black Friday is a tradition - and almost a sport to find bargains - it can also lead to stressful behavior. In Los Angeles, a woman used pepper spray to get ahead of rival shoppers at a Walmart. In the Boston area, the cold and long waits got to some people, who shouted at those who appeared to be cutting in line. Police in cars kept an eye on crowds.

Retail workers everywhere braced for the chaos. They urged shoppers at Target not to run through the aisles. At CambridgeSide, just before she opened the doors to Best Buy, manager Isabel Gomez told her staff, “Smile a lot because we have a lot of people to take care of.’’

Gomez is a Black Friday veteran. She has worked the post-Thanksgiving Day sale for eight years and said yesterday’s crowd was one of the largest she has seen. A marketing director for CambridgeSide, Melissa LaVita, said traffic was up across the mall, with 20 of its 120 stores opening at 12:30 a.m. She said there were at least 10 percent more cars pouring into the garage by midday; they will have complete numbers on Monday.

Patriot Place, the four-year-old Foxborough shopping center, reported a record day. “It’s definitely our best Black Friday ever,’’ spokesman Jeff Cournoyer said. Most stores with midnight openings had lines Thursday night, he said. And the mall was jammed after a brief lull between 3:30 and 6 a.m.

Some shoppers said the agony of a sleepless night wasn’t worth it, even if they scored big deals.

Yesterday, after shopping until the wee hours, Kim Kirby of Winthrop was an hour late for work as a receptionist for August Brothers Oil Co. in Boston. Her Black Friday haul: three TV sets. Her savings: about $400.

“I’m exhausted,’’ she said. “Never again.’’

Michael B. Farrell can be reached at Todd Wallack of the Globe staff and correspondents Kathleen Pierce and Christina Reinwald contributed to this report.

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