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Holiday shopping gets off to hot start / November 26, 2012
Give thanks and go shopping: A pair of traditional to do’s for the Thanksgiving Day holiday weekend seemed more inseparable this year than ever.

With many big-box retailers opening early Thanksgiving evening for doorbuster sales, and with Black Friday specials prodding shoppers to reach down deep and catch their second wind, the holiday weekend that marks the traditional start of the Christmas retail season got off to a rousing start.

“The best thing about it is nobody worried about the economy,” said Tanya Stovall, manager of the Goody’s store at Hupps Mill Plaza, where an 8 p.m. doorbuster sale on Thanksgiving night attracted a line of shoppers outside the door that reached almost a third of the way down the shopping center’s sidewalk.

“People were thinking about Thanksgiving and Christmas gift-giving …. I’m looking forward to Christmas,” said Stovall. “I know it’s going to be a great one.”

A big draw at Goody’s on Thanksgiving night were the free gift cards — most customers in line at 8 p.m. received $5 or $10 scratch-off cards, although one woman won a $100 certificate — and steep discounts on Android-powered computer tablets, priced Thursday night for only $49.99.

“We sold out of those by about 8:05,” said Stovall.

The one-two punch of Thanksgiving Night-Black Friday specials inspired planning and teamwork by shoppers such as Sharon Harris and Ellen Kent of South Boston. The duo teamed up for a Thanksgiving night foray to Walmart and Belk to load up on deeply discounted electronics, toys, clothing and other items, an undertaking that began 7:30 Thursday night and came to an end around 1:30 the next morning. Following a quick night’s sleep, they were back at it, heading out to the mall in Danville for Black Friday specials.

“In order to get the deals you want, you have to be strategic,” said Harris, who enlisted her aunt, Ms. Kent, and later in the evening her husband, Whit — who held out until after the Cowboys-Redskins game was over — for Operation Shop Walmart on Thanksgiving. “You may have to send one family member to one aisle and one family member to another because the lines were so long.”

At Walmart, Harris and Kent took turns staking out the big prize of the night — a $148 flat-panel 32-inch TV — while Whit Harris was assigned to stand in line for other items that were flying off the store’s shelves. The two women arrived at Walmart at 7:30, half an hour before the store opened for business, and found the parking lot already full. (They parked by Wendy’s.) By the time Whit Harris arrived, the only available parking was over at the Lowes Home Improvement store, even further away.

“I was nice,” laughed Sharon Harris. “I did take him back to his vehicle.”

Steep discounts and door prizes may engender long lines and games of musical chairs out in the parking lot, but Harris said the experience of shopping on Thanksgiving weekend — however exhausting — was worth it.

“I’m totally thrilled to be out there getting the latest deals for my family and friends for Christmas,” she said.

While big-box and mall stores loom large in the Thanksgiving holiday mindset — both among shoppers and retail analysts sizing up the Christmas retail outlook — the long weekend is also an important one for small, locally-owned shops. Patsy Owen, owner of Enchanted Surroundings in South Boston, said small retailers can’t hope to keep up with the early-morning frenzy that marks the start of Black Friday — to say nothing of the new Thanksgiving crush the night before — but local shops do get their share of business kicking in around Friday afternoon and continuing through the weekend.

“People like the more relaxed atmosphere,” said Owen, plus the fact that local stores such as hers tend to offer storewide discounts rather than drastically reduced pricing on certain items only. “We have plenty of what we sell and [shoppers] can be relaxed and choose. There’s plenty for people, it’s not just two items that we sell” at a discount, she said.

Christmas decorations were a huge draw at Enchanted Surroundings over the weekend, and Owen said Black Friday was “a great day” as the store filled up with afternoon shoppers and remained busy until closing time at 10 p.m. For the weekend, she said, sales kept pace with last year’s numbers despite continued concerns about the economy.

“As long as I’m doing as well as the year before, I’m happy,” she said. “We’re seeing people still excited about Christmas and wanting to decorate. I don’t see them letting the economy make them feel like they have to do without things.”

At least one shopper came by Enchanted Surroundings determined to do her Christmas shopping with local merchants. Having just won a $25 gift card online, “she could have spent it anywhere, but she said, ‘I want to support small business and spend it with you,’” recounted Owen.

The overall picture emerging from the Thanksgiving retail weekend is mixed: tracking data suggest that retailers such as Walmart, Target and Sears drummed up big business on Thanksgiving night by extending their store hours and offering doorbuster specials, but Black Friday was weaker than usual — the clear result, say analysts, of one big sale undercutting the next.

The National Retail Federation estimated that Thanksgiving weekend shoppers increased their average spending to $423 from $398 in the period a year earlier, a hopeful sign for retailers heading into the Christmas season.

The shopping extravaganza was great fun for her and her aunt, said Harris, but she admitted to having mixed feelings about shopping on such a traditional family-oriented holiday as Thanksgiving. A former Walmart employee herself — Harris worked as store assistant manager in the early 1990s — she conceded that she had a “little bit of reservations” about heading out to the South Boston store on Thursday night.

“I’m a family person and being around family around the holidays is very near to my heart. That’s one of the reasons I left retail,” she said.

Last year, she noted, Walmart waited until 10 o’clock Thursday night to hold its big Thanksgiving sale, and years before the store was closed all day for the holiday. “It’s definitely a different [era]. But it’s all driven by money, which is unfortunate,” she said.

At Goody’s, the holiday discount pricing had at least some charitable effect: One shopper came by the store to buy 25 coats on sale for $17.99 each. She was buying on behalf of her church, which plans to give away the coats to needy children this holiday, said Stovall, the Goody’s store manager.

“I thought that was a great thing,” she said.

Stovall worked through Thanksgiving night until the store finally closed around 1:30 the next morning, then returned mid-morning Friday to greet the Black Friday crush. Some store employees worked through the night Thursday and early Friday morning and then were back at the store again at 6 a.m. for the start of Black Friday.

“If you’ve got a great staff that will hold you up, you can accomplish anything,” said Stovall. “We got tired, but we kept going.”

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