Shoppers might be ready to say 'buy' to slow economy

Stores across Wichita and the nation opened their doors well before dawn Friday, kicking off the holiday shopping season with discounts on everything from toys to TVs.

Hundreds of shoppers were lined up in front of Old Navy at 21st and Maize Road for the store's 3 a.m. opening.

By the time the store opened, Phillip Purcell and a friend had been waiting in line for more than five hours. Purcell arrived at 9:30 Thanksgiving night, drawn by a free Lego Rock Band game with a $20 purchase.

"It's been a lot of fun," Purcell said. "We've met some great people out here."

Meanwhile, at Kohl's on West Kellogg, Jordyn Boyle, Byron Wiechman and a friend had slept on the sidewalk in front of the store waiting for its 4 a.m. opening.

"I kept waking up because I was shaking so hard" from the cold, Boyle said, adding that this Black Friday shopping spree might be her last.

Wiechman said he was there to buy a hair straightener for Boyle and a $30 comforter.

And Boyle was buying Christmas presents for her mother.

While shoppers waited for the store to open, a Kohl's manager passed out sale fliers and maps of the store layout.

The map was helpful, Boyle said.

When the doors open, "we've got our plan," she said.

After suffering the worst sales decline in several decades last holiday season, the retail industry is heading into the Christmas selling period armed with lean inventories and more practical goods on their shelves that reflect shoppers' new psyche.

Still, with unemployment at 10.2 percent nationally — 7.9 percent in the Wichita area — many analysts expect that total holiday sales will be about even at best from a year ago.

The holiday weekend has high stakes for retailers who've suffered through a year of sales declines. It's also important for the broader economy, which could use a kick-start from consumer spending.

The day after Thanksgiving is called Black Friday by retailers because it's traditionally the day crowds of shoppers push stores into the "black," or profitability.

Retailers "came out swinging" Friday, said National Retail Federation president and CEO Tracy Mullin.

"Budget-focused shoppers seemed to be pleasantly surprised with the post-Thanksgiving deals, which many retailers will extend into Saturday and even Sunday," Mullin said.

The federation, a retail trade association, estimates holiday sales will drop 1 percent this year to $437.6 billion.

Kohl's manager Mike Brogdin said he expected good sales this holiday season.

"Our performance has been strong throughout the year," Brogdin said.

Electronics and toys drew many customers to Kohl's, while $15 jeans, fleece sweatshirts and sweaters were an attraction at Old Navy.

Old Navy manager Jill Darge said she expects sales to be comparable to last year's.

Several retailers, such as Old Navy and Walmart, were open on Thanksgiving Day.

At Old Navy, Thanksgiving sales were better than expected, Darge said.

Best Buy operations manager Latisha Godfrey said it's difficult to tell how sales will go.

"We discussed this a lot," Godfrey said."... As to what it's going to look like, we have no idea."

TVs, laptops, cameras, gaming systems and some appliances were expected to be the biggest sellers, she said.

Abby Jantz, Towne West Square director of marketing and business development, was passing out doughnuts to early-morning shoppers Friday. The mall opened at 5 a.m., and shoppers were plentiful.

Towne West is expecting a "little bit of an increase" over last year's sales, Jantz said.

"Shoppers' confidence has come back over last year, it seems like," she said.

TradeHome Shoes manager Jason Wasmund agreed.

"It's kind of turning around now," Wasmund said.

Mary Lusk, who was shopping at J.C. Penney's at Towne West early Friday, said she planned to spend about the same as last year.

By 7:45 a.m., Lusk and her sister had been to five stores.

It's the eighth year they've gotten up early after Thanksgiving to shop.

"You can't mind the crowds," Lusk said.