Early bargain hunters fill stores before dawn on Black Thursday

Sarah Halzack (c) 2014, The Washington Post. WASHINGTON — By the time she arrived at Kmart just before 6 a.m. Thursday, Antoinette Wood had already seasoned her turkey. The sweet potatoes were done, the decorations were up, and the house was cleaned to welcome her guests.

And with her Thanksgiving preparations set, Wood sought to get a jump-start on Christmas, loading up her cart with a $4.99 iron, an $8.99 Operation game and a $10 Barbie convertible and doll set.

Wood was lured to the big-box retailer’s outpost in Hyattsville, Maryland by the low prices, but also by the tradition of meeting her sisters for some early-morning deal-chasing.

“It makes for fun for the holiday,” Wood said.

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Millions of consumers were expected to join Wilson on Thursday in taking their turkey with a side of shopping. As the retail industry has pushed its annual barrage of door-buster deals from Black Friday into what some now call Black Thursday, deal hunters are flocking to the mall or firing up their computers to take advantage of an outpouring of discounts and special offers.

Analysts and economists say this holiday season is poised to give retailers more reason for Christmas cheer than ones of the recent past. The economy is healing, the jobless rate is down, and consumers have fatter wallets thanks to lower gas prices, which should encourage shoppers to spend less cautiously. One quarter of U.S. shoppers said they planned to spend more on holiday shopping this year, compared with the 20 percent who said the same in 2013, according to a survey by Accenture.

The National Retail Federation expects the industry to see 4.1 percent sales growth during the holiday, compared with the lackluster 3.1 percent reported for the period last year.

And yet retailers are girding for a hard fight for your holiday dollars, in part because many consumers are still not willing to spend unless they see steep discounts or promotions.

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That focus on reduced prices is what prompted Mount Rainier, Maryland resident Kem Stevens to make a pre-dawn trip to Kmart on Thursday.

“I am a couponer,” Stevens said. “I’m not paying full price.”

Waiting in line outside, Stevens said she planned to buy a DVD player and some tablets for her grandchildren and a friend’s children. Once inside the store, she loaded up her cart with more discounted items: roller skates marked down to $12.99, a pillow marked down to $1.99. After a committed but fruitless hunt for a $16.99 “Frozen” blanket and pillow set — the one thing in the Kmart circular that her grandson circled for his Christmas list — she settled on another “Frozen” item for him. It may not have been the perfect gift, but she suspected it would be well-received.

Experts see the fixation on discounts as a battle scar of the recession: In 2008, in the wake of the financial crisis, retailers aggressively slashed prices during the holiday seasons in a frenzied attempt to unload their merchandise. That promotion merry-go-round kept circling long after the holidays, and customers became trained not to pounce until they saw “30 percent off your purchase” or some other alluring offer.

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Amid this fiercely promotional environment, many big retailers say they are only cautiously optimistic about the holiday season. Wal-Mart and Best Buy are both forecasting modest to no sales growth during the fourth quarter.

While in-store events remain a centerpiece of major retailers’ Black Thursday strategies, many also launched an array of online deals on Thanksgiving to appeal to shoppers who would rather not hit the stores during the holiday. Wal-Mart, for example, offered a Samsung 55-inch 4K TV for $1,298, a $900 savings, on its Web site Thursday morning. Kmart’s digital shoppers saw the price of the “Frozen” Elsa doll, one of this holiday season’s hottest toys, dip from $39.99 to $29.99.

Black Friday’s creep into Thanksgiving, of course, has been a turnoff for some shoppers. Petitions on Change.org and chatter on social networks show that some consumers plan to steer clear of stores Thursday to demonstrate to retailers that they don’t think a family holiday should be transformed into a spending spree.

But even as some are urging stores to shutter their doors, data show that online shopping on Black Thursday is on the rise. Cloud computing company Akamai Technologies found that Thanksgiving Day traffic to retail sites was 21 percent higher last year than in 2012, suggesting that enthusiasm is growing for online shopping on the holiday.