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Discount craze kicks off holiday shopping season

By Justin Boron

On Black Friday, a little bit of grit, love, and a whole lot of patience are what make a holiday dream come true.

Greg Tucker, 31, of McDonough knew that ahead of time, and after a little coaxing from his wife, he said he wrapped up in a blanket, plopped into a folding chair, and waited.

Starting at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, he earned his place at the front of the line, and at 5 a.m. the next day he made an easy beeline to his cause – a $150 home computer for his children.

Was it worth it to him? No way. To his wife, Lorie, it meant some. But he said, “It's mostly for the kids.”

Almost 300 giddy shoppers stormed the Best Buy in McDonough at 5 a.m., partaking in the annual melee of shopping season kickoff. As one of retailers' busiest shopping days of the year, it is named after its capacity to catapult the bottom line from the red ink of losses to the black ink of profits. In an improving but still challenging economy, merchants are hoping that the early bird specials will lure in big crowds and set a positive tone for the entire holiday season.

The bargain hunters at the McDonough Best Buy were just a small portion of the thousands across the nation who woke before dawn in response to a wave of television and newspaper ads on and leading up to Thanksgiving that promoted “doorbuster” sales.

Merchants also appeared to be taking a more aggressive approach with discounts and special offers. For the first time, Macy's, a division of Federated Department Stores Inc., was giving away a total of $1 million in gift cards to early bird shoppers. Some retailers, like J.C. Penney Co. Inc. and Wal-Mart, threw open their doors earlier in a bid to keep them shopping longer in their stores.

Some of the deals were amazing enough to warrant seven or eight hour waits. In McDonough, Bob Hensel, 50, staked out the Best Buy all night and slept on an air mattress.

“It's just like a normal night with a broken furnace,” he said.

An hour before the store opened, the line wrapped around the building, and good-spirited shoppers transformed the normally vacant parking lot at 4 a.m. into a circus of commotion and chatter.

Affability amongst shoppers, however, had no place inside the store once the sliding doors parted and the river of shoppers poured through. Then, the race was on.

Kept reasonably orderly by store managers, adults scrambled for computers, flat screen televisions, and video games like school children do for rubber four-square balls at recess.

And like any competition, it had its winners and its losers.

Those who got to the store early enough – people like Jody Schwahn – entered from the cold and were warmed with a sense of satisfaction, clutching to the trophies of their patience. Close to their chest, they juggled their sought-after discounted laptop computers and DVD players.

“We've been here all night,” said Schwahn, 33, who was in town for Thanksgiving from Charlotte, N.C. “It was worth it.”

Others at the rear of line came in hopeful but returned to the 35 degree weather with a vacuous feeling of disappointment.

Carol Ferman of McDonough was one of those unfortunates who missed out on the deals. She said she felt misled by ads promising sales that may have been limited in quantity.

“I'm just not going to buy anything from them,” Ferman said.

The Morrow area also was bustling in the early morning as the city's concentration of chain merchants kicked off the holiday shopping season.

Dianne Barfield, 57, said her group of friends has been shopping together for 25 years. She and Lorene Woodward, 73, Delores Eller, 57, and Marie Bohannon, 75, live by a few rules though.

“We don't eat leftovers, and we don't eat fast food,” she said. “We shop 'til we drop, and then we find a nice restaurant.”

Morning revelry, which was expected to comprise 60 percent of the day's business for Best Buy, wasn't just for shoppers.

The McDonough location's general manager, Jake Maddox, revved up his floor staff of “Blue Shirts” as a coach would do for a hockey or football team.

Huddling at the front of the store moments before the doors opened, Maddox told the group, many who had been on the clock since 2 a.m., “If you're not awake yet. You'll be awake in about 10 minutes.”

In his pep talk, he hurdled through big numbers like $400,000 in sales as the minimum goal for the day. Or the $2.3 million worth of merchandise on the floor. Or the 25 percent of that total that if sold, Maddox said would make the store number one in its district.

Nationally, retailers' spirits have improved in recent weeks amid falling gasoline prices. In fact, earlier this week the Washington-based National Retail Federation upgraded its holiday growth forecast to 6 percent, from 5 percent, announced back in September.

Retailers are hoping that consumers won't delay their holiday shopping until the last minute, but most analysts believe consumers will procrastinate again this year.

While the day after Thanksgiving officially starts the holiday shopping season, it is no longer the busiest shopping day. Last year, it was Saturday, Dec. 18, a week before Christmas.

Nevertheless, this year's incentives could jump-start the shopping season earlier. Based on early reports from some retail executives, traffic and buying appeared more robust than last year, but stores need customers to keep buying throughout the season.

“To me, it looks like more traffic than what we have seen,” said Terry Lundgren, chairman, president and CEO of Federated, who was walking the floors of Macy's Herald Square in New York, which attracted 1,000 customers to its doors for the 6 a.m. opening. “I have also seen a lot of bags.” Hot items were cashmere sweaters, down comforters and scarves, at up to 60 percent off, he said.

Last year, the Thanksgiving weekend rush accounted for only 9.2 percent of holiday sales. The busiest week was from Dec. 12 through Dec. 18, which garnered 22.5 percent of holiday sales, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.