Princeton - US shoppers searched for deals on high-definition televisions and popular toys early on Friday, as retailers hoped that "Black Friday" would kick off the best holiday shopping season in three years.
While some stores were open on Thursday and many retailers have offered "Black Friday" deals for weeks, shoppers still lined up late on Thursday and early Friday for the annual day-after-Thanksgiving bargain hunt.
Black Friday is a term adopted by retailers to refer to the time of year when their businesses move into the black, or turns a profit.
This year their aim is expected to be about keeping sales momentum that has picked up modestly this year as the economy recovers.
Shoppers were disappointed in some of the offers they could see, although they were still waiting in line for hours before they could get in the door.
"I'm looking at the TV and it says save $70 and I'm like, come on, you've got to be kidding," said Sanjay Patil, as he waited outside a Best Buy in Princeton, New Jersey, along with about 50 other bargain hunters before midnight, even though the electronics retailer said stores open at 5am.
"If it's Black Friday, it has to be 100 or 120 bucks savings minimum."
Others were anticipating the bargains they hoped to get. Nandini Ramkissoon, 19, staked out a spot near the stacks of $69 Blu-ray Disc players and $198 HDTVs set to go on sale at 5am inside a Wal-Mart in Secaucus, NJ.
"Wal-Mart is pretty good because they're letting their customers inside before time, and it's really cool," Ramkissoon said.
She and her parents arrived at 7pm on Thursday, 10 hours early, to make sure they could get the TV they wanted.
Wal-Mart opened many of its US discount stores on Thanksgiving Day and the doors stayed open overnight, a tactic it adopted after an employee was trampled to death two years ago on "Black Friday."
Ready to shop
Consumers, whose spending accounts for about 70% of the US economy, appeared to be in the mood to shop. On Wednesday, the government reported a 0.3% increase in personal spending in October, compared with the previous month.
Other signs that the economy might be gaining steam include a two-year low in a closely watched measure of jobless benefits.
"I'm spending more this year than last year," said George Lum, a 30-year-old hospital worker, as he sat in a lawn chair outside the Target Corp in Princeton, 4½ hours before its 4am opening. He was hoping to buy a 40-inch Westinghouse flatscreen LCD high-definition television for $298.
The National Retail Federation forecast that as many as 138 million people would go to stores this weekend. The industry trade group also forecast a 2.3% increase in sales during November and December, up from a 0.4% increase a year earlier. Other forecasts call for even greater increases.
About 200 of those shoppers were lined up waiting to pay for their purchases at the Toys R Us in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, early Friday, where Christine Barron had boxes piled over her head after shopping for her two-year-old son, David.
"I wanted to be one of the first in line, but when I got here the line was already wrapped around the side of the building," Barron said.
Many retail stocks have rallied on investor hopes that the holiday season will be even better than expected. The Standard & Poor's retailing index rose 2.6% on Wednesday to its highest close in over three years.
But that could also leave stocks vulnerable to a sell-off if sales and profits do not meet those heightened expectations, said Wall Street Strategies analyst Brian Sozzi.
"We're set up for a fall," Sozzi said. "We'll need strong earnings beats in the fourth quarter."
Despite the hooplah over Black Friday, there are still four more weeks until Christmas, and with consumers showing a tendency to do much of their shopping at the last minute before a holiday or event, analysts say that Black Friday is not a strong predictor for the season as a whole.
"Black Friday is different from the overall holiday season. Black Friday is an event," James Russo, vice president at market and consumer information monitor The Nielsen Co.
Nevertheless some shoppers were planning to put in a hard day of buying on Black Friday.
After Wal-Mart, Ramkissoon said her family plans to go to Sears and other stores most of the day before returning home to Brooklyn.
"It's like a whole day with no sleep," she said.