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NEW YORK - Shoppers shrugging off a spate of lead-tainted toy recalls and higher prices for food and gas jammed stores before dawn Friday to grab discounted TVs, toys and the hard-to-find Nintendo Wii, for the official start of the holiday season, expected to be the weakest retail showing in five years.
Stores are counting on hordes of shoppers who have pulled back in recent months. Merchants need them to keep coming throughout the holiday season to make their sales goals.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, threw open its doors at 5 a.m., offering such specials as a Polaroid 42-inch LCD HDTV for $798 and a $79.87 Sony digital camera. From 5 a.m. to noon, Toys "R" Us Inc. offered 101 early morning specials on such toys as Mattel Inc.'s Barbie styling set and Hasbro Inc.'s FurReal interactive jungle cat toy. That's four times the number it offered last year.
J.C. Penney Co., which opened at 4 a.m., an hour earlier than last year, served up such deals as a leather massage recliner for $298.88, after a $50 mail in rebate. The original price was $799. Other deals include 50 percent off toys and board games.
In a scene replayed again and again at stores nationwide, about 200 people stood in line outside a Target in Columbia, S.C., at 5 a.m., an hour before the store was to open.
Tracy Jenkinson, 34, arrived just after 3 a.m. to take the first spot in line.
He planned to buy a $199, 19-inch LCD television for his daughters.
"It's kind of crazy if you're not here to get a particular thing," Jenkinson said.
Best Buy Co. Inc. drew more than a thousand shoppers to West Patterson, N.J. and to its Manhattan store for early morning bargains on Sony laptop computers, cut to $399.99 from $749.99, and GPS devices from TomTom for $119.99, from the normal $249.99, according to store managers.
"If they were selling it, we were buying it," Tom Shea, 23, said as he surveyed his purchases at a midtown Manhattan Best Buy store. He said he, some friends and a cousin were the first through the doors when the store opened at 4 a.m.
Shea, of Brooklyn, and two friends spent a total of about $2,500 on two laptop computers, an Xbox game console, a vacuum and several other items. They estimated they had saved about $1,500 after waiting for 35 hours outside the Fifth Avenue store to make sure they were first in line, he said.
Shoppers from overseas were reveling in exchange rates that made discounts even deeper.
The dollar hit record lows against the euro Friday and reached their lowest point in 12 years against the yen.
"Everything is half price for us," Ashlee Clifford said, smiling, as she shopped at a Circuit City in Manhattan. Clifford lives in Northern Ireland.
She was unaware of the post-Thanksgiving shopping frenzy known in retail circles as Black Friday until she arrived in New York.
"It's absolutely madness," said Clifford, 26.
Plenty prepared in advance to snap the most coveted items.
At a Toys "R" Us store in Cherry Hill, N.J., the Torres family from Camden came for Microsoft Zune MP3 players, which were selling for less than half the usual $200.
They secured their spot in line at 1:30 a.m., then sent some family members to Kohl's to pick up toys, watches, a portable DVD player and a griddle in a frenzied 4 a.m. shopping spree that they said took all of six minutes.
They also nabbed four Zune MP3 players.
"It's called teamwork," said Christal Torres, 19.
Recognizing a potentially tough shopping season ahead, stores began discounting weeks ago, with such gimmicks like expanded hours. While top luxury stores like Saks Fifth Avenue continue to do well, merchants that cater to middle and lower income shoppers have suffered as consumers struggle with higher gas and food prices as well as a slumping housing market.
There are no new, must-have holiday items like Apple Inc.'s iPod, though certain products are doing well. At toy stores, Smart Cycle, from Mattel's Fisher-Price, and Jakks Pacific's EyeClops, a handheld device that magnifies objects, are among the early hits, though sales have been stymied by concerns over Chinese-made toys. At clothing stores, dresses have been a strong seller, according to Dana Telsey, CEO of Telsey Advisory Group, an independent research firm.
In electronics, there are no new game consoles, though shortages of Nintendo's Wii, which made its debut a year ago, have kept shoppers alert to whatever has dribbled in.
Pam Batts, of Raleigh, N.C., arrived at a Target in suburban Knightdale at 3:30 a.m. Friday, ready to buy a Wii for her 8 year old son but left empty handed.
About 30 minutes before the doors opened, Target staff announced the store had been sold out of the consoles since Sunday.
"Now what do I do?" Batts asked. "I've got just a month to find one."
While Black Friday is expected by some analysts to be the busiest day of the season, it's not a predictor of how retailers will fare in the season overall. In fact, the weekend only accounts for about 10 percent of overall holiday sales. But it does set the tone since what consumers see that day influences where they will shop for the rest of the year.
Last year, retailers had a good start during the Thanksgiving weekend, but many stores struggled in December and a shopping surge just before and after Christmas wasn't enough to make up for lost sales.
This year, analysts expect sales gains to be the weakest in five years. Washington-based National Retail Federation predicted that total holiday sales will be up 4 percent for the combined November and December period, the slowest growth since a 1.3 percent rise in 2002.
Holiday sales rose 4.6 percent in 2006 and growth has averaged 4.8 percent over the last decade.
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