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Earlier Deals, Longer Hours Woo U.S. Shoppers

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The American holiday shopping season began in earnest Friday as stores opened their doors earlier than years past on the most anticipated shopping day of the year. Many locations opened at midnight on Friday but some opened as early as 9 p.m. Thursday, as opposed to 4 a.m. on Friday in years past.

Michelle Bower started shopping shortly after 9 p.m. on Thursday in New Hampshire. At 3 a.m. she was back out for round two in Somerville.

"We went home, we dropped all our packages off, laughed... and ran back out. And here we are now, in Target," Bower said.

Adam Vanyo arrived at the Cambridgeside Galleria just before 1 a.m. Friday and said he missed the big crowds.

"[It's] not as crazy as what I had to deal with last year at the Wrentham Outlets," Vanyo said. "But tons of people, tons of lines, tons of people rushing over and over to get the same item."

Retailers hope the earlier openings will make Black Friday shopping more convenient for Americans who are more likely to be worried about high unemployment and the other challenges they face in the weak economy. Black Friday is important to merchants because it kicks off the holiday shopping season, a time when they can make 25 to 40 percent of their annual revenue. It’s expected that shoppers will spend nearly $500 billion during the holiday shopping season.

Jon Hurst of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts says the organization is predicting a modest but healthy 2.5 percent increase in holiday sales from a year ago.

"Last year turned the tide,” Hurst said. "After three years in a row of reduced holiday sales we actually increased and increased by a large number and now we're looking to have two years in a row of positive gains."

About 34 percent of consumers plan to shop on Black Friday, up from 31 percent last year, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers, and 16 percent had planned to shop on Thanksgiving Day itself. For the weekend, 152 million people are expected shop, up from 138 million last year.

To get people to shop, merchants pulled out their bag of tricks. Only a few opened last year at midnight, but several more stores followed this year. Some are offering to match the prices of competitors. Others are offering layaway plans that allow shoppers to pay as they go.

But the deals are what's driving many early shoppers into stores. After all, Americans are focusing more on bargains these days, a habit they picked up during the economic downturn.

April Aldridge was at the South Shore Plaza in Braintree early this morning. She said she saved about $100 at one location.

"First time. Just for the experience, I guess," Aldridge said of shopping early for Black Friday deals. "I have four little ones, I've got to save the money where I can, right?"

The Gap is offering discounts of 60 percent, 40 percent and 20 percent off many items. Old Navy has pea coats for $29 and jeans for $15. Toys R Us is selling a Transformers Ultimate Optimus Prime action figure for $30 off at $47.99 and a Power Wheels Barbie vehicle for $120 off for $199.99. And Best Buy has a $499 42-inch LCD HDTV for $199 and a $400 Asus Transformer 10-inch tablet computer for $249.99.

Millie Ayala, a 28-year-old receptionist, began standing in line at a Toys R Us in New York at 5:30 p.m. on Thanksgiving, armed with the retailer’s circular and a plan for how she and her sister would scour the store for deals. On her list? An interactive dog named Cookie and some baby dolls for her two young daughters.

"Finances have been tough," she says. "Things are a lot more expensive but with Black Friday deals, things are more affordable."

It remains to be seen whether that enthusiasm will linger throughout the holiday shopping season. But analysts seem to agree that if retailers want shoppers to keep coming back, they'll have to keep discounting.

"The consumer is continuing to spend and shop and look for the bargains," says said John D. Morris, BMO Capital Markets analyst. "If it’s the right product at the right price she’s shopping and buying."

With reporting by The Associated Press and the WBUR Newsroom.

This program aired on November 25, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

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