WASHINGTON, Nov. 27 (UPI) -- As the last customers trickled out of stores across the nation Friday night, clutching Christmas-motif shopping bags filled with the spoils of shopping quests, they left behind inside-out sweaters strewn on tables, tried-on jackets thrown carelessly onto racks, and piles of hangers and cardboard in dressing-room corners -- the aftermath of what can be the most exciting or off-putting shopping day of the year, Black Friday.
This Black Friday -- so-called for its promise of putting retailers comfortably into the black by kicking off a successful holiday shopping season -- promises to be blacker than last year's. With 130 million shoppers forecast to be out scouring everything from the Internet to malls, boutiques and big-box megastores for holiday gifts this weekend, sales promise to be 4.5 percent higher than last year, bringing merchants $219.9 billion this holiday season, the National Retail Federation said Friday.
NRF's latest Consumer Intentions and Actions holiday shopping survey showed that consumers plan to spend an average of more than $700 this year on holiday gifts, decorations, cards, candy, and food, compared to $672 in 2003.
For at least the past week, postal workers have stuffed mailboxes full of sales advertising, everything from one-page flyers to fat catalogs to a free-panty offer from Victoria's Secret, hoping to whet shoppers' appetites.
Shoppers flocked to the mall to take advantage of rewards for the earliest birds. Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax, Va., gave out doughnuts, juice and coffee to early risers, and prizes -- including a Sony digital camera -- to the first 50 shoppers in line to get in the mall when it opened at 5:30 a.m., David Harris, Fair Oaks Mall general manager, told UPI.
Mall stores also had their own promotions. From free scarves to coupons knocking an extra 10 or 15 percent off items, "Stores were more promotional-oriented this year than in the past," Miller said. All the goodies definitely had an effect -- in front of Sears alone, about 2000 people were waiting to get in by the time it opened at 6 a.m., Harris said.
At the Providence Place Mall in Providence, R.I., salespeople passed out coupons as shoppers navigated mounds of unfolded, refolded and thrown-around merchandise at the Gap, American Eagle and Eastern Mountain Sports, searching for items in the right size. One group of women said they had been shopping for the entire day in search of holiday sales, and had eaten breakfast, lunch and dinner at the mall.
"Initially, I didn't want to come out, but it's Black Friday, the national holiday of New Jersey," said apprehensive shopper Annmarie Pisano, 20. Pisano, who attends Fordham University in New York, was shopping with her friend at H&M in Garden City Plaza mall, located in Paramus, N.J.
"Last year was much worse, so I was a little nervous. It's better than I expected actually," said Pisano.
While shoppers may have been slightly less bloodthirsty this year, business was better than ever, some Garden City managers told UPI. Indeed, most shoppers had at least two bags in hand. Some carried a few bags and piled the six or seven others in their kids' strollers.
"I am grinning from ear to ear," said Mary Jane Solino, store manager at J.C. Penney. "No question that this year was much better than the last."
According to Solino, sales were up nearly 25 percent based on hour-per-hour sales tracking, as compared to last year. When the store opened at 7 a.m., customers were lined up three deep at every entranceway, Solino said.
Roughly 300 employees were working the 3-floor, 200,000-square-foot department store, folding clothes and otherwise trying to keep some semblance of order.
"It's all-hands-on-deck day," said Solino. "Whatever we can do to make it easier for the customer to shop and to get in and out, as quickly as possible," she said.
She credited Wednesday's newspaper and television advertising for bringing in shoppers. Additionally, the store ran a "door-buster" special from 7 a.m. to noon.
At Sephora, skin-care specialist Laura Czepil said that business at the fragrance and cosmetic store was "fabulous."
According to Czepil, it seemed likely that the store would meet a target of $45,000, last year's Black Friday sales revenue. The store had already brought in $15,000 by about 1 p.m.
Although Sephora was not holding any special sales or giving away gifts with purchases, consumers were still coming in looking for fragrance gift packages.
Back at Fair Oaks Mall, Katelyn Priftis, 13, who had been shopping with her friends for nearly 5 hours, was enjoying her first Black Friday shopping adventure. Her best bargain among her many purchases? "An Abercrombie shirt for $9.90 -- they're usually about $24," Priftis, of Fairfax, Va., said.
Priftis' friend Jenifer Rodriguez, also 13 but already a Black Friday veteran, was looking for presents for her friends, but also scoping out some potential Christmas presents for herself. "The purse I want at Coach that's usually $285 is $158," Rodriguez, also of Fairfax, said.
But some people simply refused to buy into the Black Friday shopping hype, including Linda Braaten, a twenty-something mother of two who spent most of the day at home in Chicago. "I didn't want to fight the crowds," she said.
"Everybody is ... conditioned and manipulated," to shop the day after Thanksgiving, said Anita Bailey, a Garden City Plaza shopper from Virginia, who described Black Friday as a "shot of adrenaline" for the holiday season. But for some people, their best bet is to stay home, she said.
"There are a lot of people who won't come out because they figure it's just madness," said Garden City Plaza shopper Joyce Kassai, of Houston.
Kassai also said that retail stores are not lowering their prices enough to bring shoppers in. "Bring the prices down and you are going to fill up the stores," she said. "Give a sale that is a real sale."
Keeping in mind that this is just the start of the holiday shopping season, some stores, like Lord and Taylor, have already tried to stake firm claims on post-Black-Friday-weekend shopping. The high-end department store this week sent out a 15-percent-off coupon good for one whole day of shopping between Nov. 29 and Christmas Eve.
(With reporting by Kimberly Centazzo.)