BANGOR – With a subdued cheer, a long line of shoppers surged into the Best Buy electronics store at 5 a.m. on Black Friday, hunting for bargains so good they’d get seasonal bragging rights.
Some had waited in line for hours in the pre-dawn chill. Others, like Carl Robbins of Bangor, had made it an all-night event, pitching a tent in the parking lot and even bringing an ice-shack heater with him for extra comfort.
“It was awesome. We’re having a great time,” said Robbins, who was among the first in line and held an early-bird prize: a slip of paper that would allow him to get $250 off a Toshiba laptop computer.
“With that much off, it’s worth spending the night,” he said.
The nation’s retailers slashed prices and opened their doors as early as midnight, hoping to entice shoppers such as Robbins into their checkout lines. With this year’s financial meltdown, analysts and retailers are anxious to know what shoppers bought during Black Friday – and whether it might signify less gloom for the holiday shopping season.
For retailers, the Black Friday moniker has traditionally portended success rather than despair. The day received its name because it used to be the day when a surge of shoppers helped stores break into profitability for the full year.
Although its importance has eroded over time, last year the Thanksgiving shopping weekend of Friday through Sunday still accounted for about 10 percent of overall holiday sales, according to ShopperTrak RCT Corp.
With the current economic crisis, some analysts are predicting that consumer spending will shrink during this holiday season, which normally accounts for between 25 percent and 40 percent of retail’s yearly sales and is an important driver of the national economy.
According to University of Maine economics professor Jim McConnon, the mood of shoppers will be a key factor in holiday sales.
“Going into this Christmas season, the real impact is lack of consumer confidence,” he said recently. “Consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of the economy. If consumers stop or slow down their spending, that’s going to have an effect all over the economy.”
One such careful shopper on Friday was Ricky Hunt of Pittsfield, who padded through the Bangor Mall in her pajamas at 6 a.m. Her husband recently switched careers after losing his wood-cutting job last spring, she said, and they’re cutting back this year.
“We’re getting things like clothing more than worrying about the toys,” she said.
Some Canadian shoppers, however, were enjoying the discounts more than they were worrying about the global economy.
“The economy doesn’t bother me a bit,” said Sandra Keddy of Oromocto, New Brunswick, who was taking a smoke break outside Wal-Mart. “The buys are still good, even with the exchange rate,” which currently favors the U.S. dollar.
Store managers seemed to think the early-morning crowds were big enough to be a good sign.
“It’s feeling really good,” said Paul Gadoury, the general manager of Best Buy. “It feels like a good Black Friday.”
James Gerety of the Bangor Mall, where the parking lots looked to be nearly full even before the sun rose, said that there were lines at Sears before 5 a.m.
“That’s a good sign,” he said. “[Black Friday] is a phenomenon that’s grown over the years. Families take this as a tradition, to get up at the crack of dawn. It’s an experience.”
But Joe Barbarow, the manager of KB Toys, wasn’t so sure about the signs.
Barbarow affably passed out sales fliers and regretfully explained to shoppers the national shortage of a popular marble and card game, Bakugan.
“It’s a great day,” he said of Black Friday. “It’s busy. We move a lot of merchandise – but actually it’s a little slower than it was last year. The economy is bad for everybody this year.”
Over at discount mega-retailer Wal-Mart – whose stock is bucking the national trend by rising instead of sinking this year – the cars lined the access road and even spilled into the Shaw’s grocery store parking lot. By all accounts, the checkout line was extreme.
“It was crazy. It was insane,” said Gail Myshrall of Harrington, pushing a heavily laden shopping cart to her van. “It’s like 15 lanes of cars trying to get into a two-lane highway.”
Myshrall left her house at 2:30 a.m. to score good deals on a 32-inch television set and digital photo frames, among other items – but she also witnessed some actions that surprised her.
One lady reached away from her shopping cart and a man snatched it away from her.
“I felt wicked bad for her,” said Myshrall. “Everything we wanted, we got, so that’s fortunate. We didn’t have to knock anyone over or steal anyone’s cart.”
Myshrall, a special education teacher at Narraguagus High School, said she is slashing her shopping budget because of the bad economy.
“We’re absolutely feeling the pinch,” she said. “We’re just buying for the kids this season – we usually buy for everybody.”
One of her nephews, a 9-year-old, seems to understand that this year will be different.
“He said, ‘I want that, but I think it’s too expensive. I don’t know if Santa can afford that this year,'” Myshrall said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.