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Scenes From The Mall: Picky, Picky, Picky

When the doors opened at midnight at the K-B Toys at Woodbridge Center Mall, the crowd rushed in.

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"You would have thought that we were giving away money," said one sales associate.

But by 4:30 a.m., the store was relatively quiet. There was a steady flow of customers into the store, but no wait to check out, and there were plenty of staffers on hand to assist customers with their questions. In fact, it was hard to move a few feet in the store without having someone attempt to assist you.

Welcome to Black Friday 2008.

Early reads on how things are shaping up suggest that customers turned out to the stores and malls in lighter numbers this year than last year. And those shoppers, who did show up, were far more selective, searching for the best bargains they could find in this highly competitive season.

NPD Group said early store traffic appears to be about 25 percent lighter than a year ago.

Anecdotally, those trends appear to have played at Woodbridge Center Mall, the second-largest shopping mall in the state behind Garden State Plaza in Elizabeth. The mall is owned by General Growth Properties , which has hired bankruptcy lawyers and warned it could file for legal protection as it tries to shore up its finances.

Veteran Black Friday shoppers Jessica Snowden and Leslie Wawszkiewicz were oogling earrings at the Woodbridge Center early Friday morning, but not buying much.

Snowden, a new mother from Watchung, N.J., said she's seen better deals in the weeks leading into the Thanksgiving holiday.

"I got 90 percent off at Kohl's ," said Snowden.

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Both women are cutting back on spending on gifts this year, citing the uncertain economy.

"I'm being selective because the deals I've seen in the past have been a whole lot better," said Wawskiewicz, of Union, N.J.

She said she's especially holding off on any clothing purchases because she doesn't think the deals are sweet enough yet, but she did buy some home goods on the cheap.

Roseanne Galtez, of Edison, N.J., hit the mall at 4:30 a.m., to buy some GPS systems that were on sale at Sears.

She plans to spend about the same as she did last year on gifts for her family and friends.

"It's the holidays," Galtez said.

But others are clearly cutting back.

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Kim Wilson, of Newark, N.J., said her family started a new tradition this holiday season. They are pulling names from a hat for a grab bag to cut down on the number of gifts they need to buy for each other.

"But the children, we'll still buy for," Wilson said.

Wilson arrived at the mall before midnight for her first-ever Black Friday shopping experience. She said she was encouraged to come out and shop by her children, who were with her, and had been shopping throughout the night.

"I got some good deals," Wilson said, mentioning the towels she got at JCPenney for $2.99 each. "But it's a little bit overwhelming."

George Cabrera also was out for his first Black Friday shopping trip. He was stopping for a coffee before heading out to shop for appliances and clothes at Sears

and Macy's .

Cabrera, who said he was cutting back on his Christmas spending, said his goal was to save money on the special deals.

And there were deals to be had. At the Playmobil store, the toy retailer was offering 35-percent off of everything in the store, while K-B Toys had buy two Fisher-Price or Barbie toys, get one free. They also had a buy two, get one free offer on videogames. Prices for board games were exceptionally cheap, with classics such as CandyLand, Chutes and Ladders and Yahtzee selling for $4.99.

At JCPenney, towels weren't the only thing on sale. The retailer was advertising 300 "Doorbuster" items as well as 100 "Big Buys", an overall increase of 20 percent from Black Friday specials last year. These items included a half-carat diamond necklace or bracelet for $79.99 each, a five-piece luggage set for $38.88, and a toaster for $14.98, among other things.

Outside the mall, there were long lines in front of the Toys R Us and the Best Buy. Several miles up the road, at a Wal-Mart in Linden, N.J., the line stretched down the side of the building as shoppers waited for doors to open at 5 a.m.

Many retail analysts are putting their bets on Wal-Mart to be very successful this holiday season as consumers focus on price.

In the New York City suburb of Valley Stream, the crowd got out of control and broke down the doors trying to enter the store, killing a Wal-Mart employee and sending four other people to the hospital. The company has called it a "tragic" incident.

For those who don't want to brave the cold and crowds, plenty of retailers are offering deals online, and there are sure to be even more discounts on Monday, a day that has become known as "Cyber Monday."

At comparison shopping Web site, Pricegrabber.com, consumers clearly shifted their intentions as Friday neared.

In the days leading into the Thanksgiving holiday, visitors to Pricegrabber.com were shopping for apparel, especially women's sleep and lounge wear; women's boots and handbags and small appliances such as toasters, said Pricegrabber.com President Ron LaPierre.

However, on Thanksgiving, shoppers turned their attention back to electronics, which had been the most popular items being searched for last week.

In the top 20 most searched for items, only one of them was not an electronic item: women's Ugg boots.

Black Friday often is not the biggest shopping day of the year, but it does tend to set a tone for the holiday season.

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