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Some Spending Strength in Early Holiday Numbers

Shoppers began storming stores and Web sites on Thanksgiving, and the throngs continued through Black Friday, according to retailers and Web site traffic-tracking companies.

While there were no reports of significant problems like those that marred Black Friday last year - including a death at a Walmart - the day wasn't without angst for shoppers and retailers.

Kohl's promotion of doorbuster deals starting at midnight Friday caused such a rush on its Web site that it was down for most of the 12 hours until noon. Shoppers typically couldn't get on the site or, if they did, were unable to check out. The site recommended people return later as "elves" were working on the problems.

"I'm sure that cost them millions in revenue," says David Fry, whose e-commerce company builds and operates many retail Web sites.

Although retailers have dubbed the Monday after Thanksgiving "Cyber Monday" - and the National Retail Federation reports 90 percent of stores will have specials starting that day - many have been offering discounts since well before turkeys hit ovens Thursday.

Coremetrics, which does online tracking for about 500 retail clients including Abercrombie&Fitch and Macy's, reported Thanksgiving Day online sales were up 30 percent from last year and Black Friday sales by early afternoon were about 25 percent higher than last year. Vikram Sharma, CEO of ShopLocal, which digitizes retailers' circulars, says there was 43 percent more "pre-shopping" on retail Web sites this year over last with Web activity peaking at 9 p.m. Thursday.

Fewer consumers said in a National Retail Federation survey that they planned to brave crowds to shop in stores during the post-Thanksgiving weekend than actually did so last year. But the trade group says the number of people who actually do shop is still likely to rise.

"We often find that people can't refuse the bargains when they hear about them," says NRF spokeswoman Kathy Grannis.

Wal-Mart decided to keep nearly all of its stores open for 24 hours this year beginning at 6 a.m. Thanksgiving in hopes of cutting down on the early-morning madness of Black Friday, which led to the trampling death of a Wal-Mart employee last year. So consumers eager to get a jump on shopping before Black Friday could add Walmart to the short list of stores open on Thanksgiving that included Kmart and most Old Navy stores.

Toys R Us opened at midnight on Thursday for the first time, and CEO Jerry Storch said lines at stores averaged about 1,000 shoppers.

Many shoppers are "night owls" and said it "seems like a better time to go out," says Storch. Some reported they planned to head to other stores' openings at 3 or 4 a.m.

Sears and Kmart stores had slightly longer lines this year, but even more encouraging for parent company Sears, shoppers weren't darting out once they snagged their doorbuster deals, says spokesman Tom Aiello.

"Last year, people were turned around by the economy and (crowds) died down quickly," he says. "This year people are spending more time in the stores and fanning out to other departments."

Even though retailers are offering deep discounts earlier every year, it doesn't cut much into the enthusiasm many Americans still have for the sport of competitive shopping - whether on- or off-line - on Black Friday.

Aiello says many suspected that Sears and Kmart would cannibalize their own Black Friday sales when they started offering doorbusters in early November and vowed to continue them until Christmas. But he says lines, 1,500 people long at some stores, suggested otherwise.

Not everyone celebrates this "holiday" of course.

"This Black Friday I'm enjoying doing stuff around the home instead of going crazy at stores or on the roads," says Lynne Janis of Thornton, Colo.

Despite some hopeful signs, NRF predicts overall holiday sales will be down 1 percent from last year; the cheeriest predictions are only for a 1 percent increase. Most retailers will be content if sales are simply flat when compared with the dismal holiday season of 2008.

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