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For Black Friday Novices, Not a Night of Conversion

Stephanie Clifford and Christopher Maag
Saturday, 26 Nov 2011 | 12:03 AM ET

They were the Black Friday novices: people who, drawn by the earlier-than-usual store openings or economic necessity, decided to try their hands at shopping on the busiest day of the retail year.

People make purchases inside Macy's department store November 25, 2011 in New York after the midnight opening to begin the "Black Friday" shopping weekend. AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)
Stan Honda | AFP | Getty Images
People make purchases inside Macy's department store November 25, 2011 in New York after the midnight opening to begin the "Black Friday" shopping weekend. AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)

The shoppers found good deals, like a $14.88 waffle iron and 40 percent off Ann Taylor Loft apparel. But assessing their initial Black Friday excursions later, many first-timers did not seem to think it was worth braving the crowds.

And while most malls and stores were packed but relatively calm, in California, a woman pepper-sprayed fellow Wal-Mart shoppers, apparently to keep them from grabbing an Xbox she wanted. Two other Wal-Mart shoppers, in San Leandro, Calif., and Myrtle Beach, S.C., were shot in the stores’ parking lots, while police arrested shoppers who were fighting over products in Wal-Mart stores in Milford, Conn., Rome, N.Y. and Kissimmee, Fla.

One first-time Black Friday shopper, Debra Banks, 48, was jostled by crowds when she entered a Toys “R” Us in New Jersey and missed out on the limited-edition coupon books. She left the store with nothing. “Well, I can’t say this is fun,” she said. “Enlightening, maybe.”

Shopping on the Friday after Thanksgiving, a custom that is tradition to some and puzzling to others, got a new twist this year with several stores opening as early as 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. Analysts said that retailers were aiming for customers who might have limited budgets and trying to appeal to people who would rather stay awake late than awaken for a 4 a.m. opening.

The first numbers on Friday’s sales results are not available until Sunday, but many malls and stores said they were seeing more visitors than last year. Macy’s Herald Square estimated that 9,000 people were waiting for its midnight opening, versus 7,000 when it opened at 5 a.m. last year. The earlier starting times seemed to bring out younger consumers who wanted to extend their Thanksgiving Day revelry by checking out the bargains. But many first-time Black Friday shoppers seemed puzzled by the fuss.

Ms. Banks, a nurse from Beech Island, S.C., was in New Jersey visiting relatives, and left their house at 7:40 Thursday evening to go shopping with her daughter-in-law and granddaughter.

“This year is different because the stores are opening up earlier,” she said. “I think it’s going to be great fun.”

So Ms. Banks climbed into the front seat of her daughter-in-law Kylie’s Chevrolet Impala, with her granddaughter Cora, 11, sitting in the back. The three of them planned their route. Cora, whose nickname at school is “Coupon Cora,” had particularly strong ideas about what deals they should focus on. They decided to start at a Lawrenceville, N.J., Toys “R” Us in time for its 9 p.m. opening.

The drive was quick, but when they arrived at 8, the line was already halfway around the building.

“Look at that line!” Ms. Banks said. “I just never expected there would be so many people here. And they don’t even open for another hour. C’mon, grab your bags, because we’re getting in!”

Outside the store, employees, along with two Pinkerton detectives, tried to keep the crowds calm. “So let’s just have everybody be respectful of everybody and it’ll all be O.K.,” a store worker told the crowd on the sidewalk.

As the doors opened, customers broke into jogs and Ms. Banks was left empty-handed and a little discouraged. The group then headed to the Lawrenceville Wal-Mart, where shoppers were polite, with a lot of “excuse me’s” as people bumped into one another.

“At least we’re not part of all those people going back for electronics,” Ms. Banks said. “That looks scary. This is a little crazy.”

The women walked out with a play kitchen for $49, a desk chair for $39 and the $14.88 waffle iron. As Ms. Banks wheeled the shopping cart out to the car, she could barely see around the big box containing the kitchen play set.

But while she got some bargains, Ms. Banks said she would not go back to a big-box store next year. “This is fun, but it’s a little too much for me,” she said.

Some first-time Black Friday shoppers said the tough economy had made getting deals a necessary part of buying Christmas gifts and for everyday staples.

In Dawsonville, Ga., Meredith Blinder, 23, a photographer, met her sister, Elizabeth McDermott, 21, and a cousin at an outlet mall. All first-time Black Friday shoppers, the women said they wanted to watch the frenzy, and liked the late-night opening time.

Ms. Blinder, who recently got married, said she and her husband cut coupons and used generic goods instead of name-brand items. She said the deals she got at the mall, like 40 percent off on a sweater and scarf from Ann Taylor Loft, helped her budget, too.

“If you’re saving money on shopping, you can reallocate that to other things,” she said.

At the Times Square Toys “R” Us just after 10 p.m. on Thursday, Yasmin Santiago and Dexter Valles were trying to fit several boxes of diapers into a small hand cart. The couple, parents of twins, said the special on diapers was worth the late-night trip, since Ms. Santiago was on leave from her job as an assistant teacher.

“We have twice the children, and half the income,” Mr. Valles said.

In the early morning, at the Woodfield Mall outside of Chicago, Roberto Melendez sank onto a bench and rubbed his eyes. He had been up for hours, first to get a television for $250 off at Wal-Mart, and then to this mall, for $7 T-shirts from Aéropostale.

“Now, we really are just trying to make it work somehow, so at least we can have a Christmas of some kind,” he said, explaining that he lost his job as a union electrician in February and is still unemployed.

In a downtown Chicago Best Buy, as a small group of Occupy Chicago protesters shouted about consumerism, a neighborhood resident, Ellie Fox, 72, said the new opening time and years of curiosity drove her to try her first Black Friday. “It was on my bucket list,” said Ms. Fox, who had hoped to get a Samsung laptop for $300. “I’m just an old woman looking for a good deal.”

But when she got inside the store, fought her way through the crowded aisles, and found that the laptop she wanted had already sold out, she immediately announced her retirement from Black Friday shopping. “I tried it,” she said. “Why do it again?”

Reporting was contributed by Julie Creswell in New Jersey, Steven Yaccino in Illinois, Rebecca Fairley Raney in California and Robbie Brown in Georgia.