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Crowds lighter than usual for Black Friday, as deals start earlier

In many stores on Black Friday, shoppers moved at a leisurely pace through clear aisles and waited in relatively short lines in what may be the new normal of the holiday shopping season.

Because the shopping mania began early — with consumers lining up for doorbusters on Thanksgiving and buying more online to take advantage of deals — Black Friday wasn't the same, analysts and shoppers said.

Joan Zacharko of Hanover, Pa., sporting reindeer antlers and browsing soaps and lotions at Bath & Body Works in White Marsh Mall with her daughter and her sister, lamented the near disappearance of Black Fridays past.

"The craziness was last night," said Zacharko, referring to Thanksgiving. "They took the fun out of Black Friday."

Retailers have reported strong sales, just at different times or spread out over a longer period. The National Retail Federation, which predicts an above-average increase in holiday sales this year of more than 4 percent, said merchants reported "record-breaking" online sales and store crowds over Thanksgiving and Black Friday.

"Despite getting out of the gates quickly, the holiday season is a marathon and not a sprint," Matthew Shay, the retail federation's CEO said in a statement. He said retailers will continue to compete for the $616 billion that's expected to be spent this season.

In contrast to light crowds on Friday, on Thanksgiving night 300 people lined up outside JCPenney in White Marsh, another 300 waited outside Kohl's in Timonium and some shoppers spent days camped at the White Marsh Best Buy to snag a heavily discounted TV.

When counting Thursday night, the number of shoppers at Target at Mondawmin Mall through Black Friday "exceeded expectations," said Ellie Raabe, store manager. About 500 people were lined up for the 6 p.m. opening Thursday, drawn by free shipping, TV doorbusters and the season's biggest in-demand video games.

Some retailers emphasized that the once-traditional kickoff to the crucial holiday shopping season is as important as ever.

"Many retailers including ourselves have been running deals this week and in prior weeks, but let's be certain that Black Friday is a very important shopping day, one of the busiest shopping days of the year, and there's no reason for us to think that's going to change this year," said Richard Barry, chief merchandising officer for Toys "R" Us.

"Black Friday is an institution in the U.S."

Trie Jones of Patterson Park stopped by the Mondawmin Target on Friday after her shift as a medical technician ended at 7 a.m. and bought $187.47 worth of toys. She said she was planning to head home for a while and then back out to shop for clothes at Old Navy and H&M.

"I wanted to get Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; my 3-year-old is in love with them," said Jones, stuffing her Target bags into black plastic bags. "I have to conceal them to get them into the house."

This year, plenty of shoppers took advantage of the scores of stores open all night starting Thanksgiving eve. At the mall in White Marsh, about half the stores remained open overnight.

"When I left at midnight, it was going strong," said Lisa Bisenius, the mall's general manager. "The shopping pattern has definitely changed because retailers started discounts earlier this week and month. We're giving shoppers more opportunities to do their shopping."

But Tanisha Curry, 23, who relaxed in the food court Friday at White Marsh after several hours of shopping that started at 3 a.m, felt that waiting until Friday meant missing out on some of the best sales.

"If you weren't out earlier, by 6 p.m. [on Thanksgiving], you missed out on a lot of good deals," Curry said. "They did Black Friday differently."

Cathy Vigus, 50, an "avid" Black Friday shopper for more than 20 years, was not impressed this year.

"It's not what I thought it would be," the Catonsville resident said about 10 a.m. at the Barnes & Noble in the Long Gate Shopping Center in Ellicott City. She'd started at Target at 6 a.m. with a friend and then hit Kohl's before meeting her sister at the bookstore.

"I didn't find anything that bowled me over," Vigus said. Her best find was Target's discount of 10 percent on gift cards, but that deal was capped at $300.

In Baltimore, while many deal hunters came to the Shops at Canton Crossing to avoid larger crowds in the suburbs, they were surprised to find the parking lot half-empty at midmorning.

"I guess everyone was out yesterday," said Susan James, who drove from Catonsville to buy a wreath and Christmas decorations at Michael's craft store.

Those who did venture out on Friday took advantage of the light crowds. Meghan Weber, a 31-year-old Dundalk resident, pushed a cart full of clothes and toys for her three daughters down an empty aisle at Target at Canton Crossing.

"I like to get all my shopping done in one day," Weber said.

Some took advantage of unique deals.

For the third holiday season, Arundel Mills mall customers who brought receipts of at least $100 earned $10 in slots play at Maryland Live. Higher-volume receipts earned as much as $50 in slots play.

"When we come here, we'll shop a little bit and then play our $20 on slots," said Michael Richardson of Essex, who arrived with his wife, Mary, to shop for their grandchildren.

Others focused on toys, a big seller during the holidays. At Toys "R" Us in Glen Burnie, shoppers bought TV-themed toys, such as Doc McStuffins and Bubble Guppies. Tim Gilman, 32, of Linthicum cruised the aisles shopping for his daughters, ages 5 and 3, and 15-month-old son.

"This is my first year shopping for a boy, so I'm going a little crazy," said Gilman, a U.S. Postal Service letter carrier who bought a mini baseball and bat and planned to shop right up to Christmas Eve.

For some shoppers, Black Friday is a tradition that doesn't budge, even with early promotions or extended hours.

Dave Gerstmyer was among consumers who refused to shop on Thanksgiving. He and his daughter and other family and friends headed out for traditional Black Friday shopping at 4:30 a.m., stopping at JCPenney, a shoe store, Forever 21 and Boscov's.

"We come to see what kind of bargains" are out there, he said.

Shawn Burger, 21, and his two friends Cody Meassick, 21, and Gary Bailey, 22, all from the Westminster area, began their Black Friday tradition in high school. They forgo sleeping late and head to the stores. Usually they don't buy much, but they have fun. This year it was Bass Pro and Eddie Bauer at Arundel Mills. Burger got a $15 flannel shirt at Eddie Bauer.

"Other than that I've only spent $7 at Chik-fil-A," he said.

As 25-year-old White Marsh resident Erica Dunsen put it, the day after Thanksgiving is still "shopping therapy. Black Friday is my favorite holiday."

Baltimore sun reporters Pamela Wood, Yvonne Wenger, Scott Dance, Kevin Rector and Jeff Barker contributed to this article.

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

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