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EARLY BIRD SHOPPERS GET BIG DEALS, LONG WAITS
DAY AFTER THANKSGIVING DRAWS USUAL THRONG

It may have been freezing Thursday night, but that didn't stop thousands of Western New Yorkers from lining up outside their favorite stores for after-Thanksgiving sales and deals.

The scene was repeated across the country: lines of eager bargain hunters snaking through the predawn darkness.

Many stores offered special deals for the first few hours only and succeeded in drawing crowds. But for some it may have backfired, as long lines quickly formed at overburdened cash registers, leaving some shoppers waiting for more than an hour in some cases to get their merchandise and check out.

"I'm not sure I'll stay. It depends how long it is," said Maureen Mirand, 45, of East Amherst, gesturing to the line of about two dozen other people in front of her to pick up a $279 digital camcorder at Best Buy in Amherst.

Traffic on Niagara Falls Boulevard was busy before 6 a.m., with the moon still up. Dawn revealed an already packed parking lot at the Boulevard Consumer Square in Amherst, whose row of big box stores and discounters touted an array of sales.

More than 1,000 people were lined up outside Best Buy by 6 a.m. The line stretched past several other stores and nearly merged with another long queue outside Target's doors.

One man had arrived at 8 p.m. the night before -- in his mobile home -- while some Target shoppers were camped out in chairs by 3:45 a.m.

Matt Luongo, 21, of Buffalo, arrived at midnight to get his hands on cheap computers -- just $200 after rebates -- and one of the 500 low-cost DVD players at Best Buy. He expects to spend about $400 to $500 on gifts this year, about $100 more than last year.

"It's an experience everyone should have at least once in your life," he said. "(To feel) the rush when you first get to go in the door."

Every year, retailers count on the day after Thanksgiving to kick-start their holiday shopping season and judge consumer sentiment based on the turnout.

"I figured it would be busy, but I didn't think it would be this busy," said Erica Seib, 32, of Gasport. This was her first early morning shopping foray on the day after Thanksgiving. "I had no idea what to expect. It's quite an experience, I can tell you that."

Early reports from the National Retail Federation show strong sales in electronics, jewelry and toys. A survey conducted for the trade group by BIG research estimates up to 130 million people will go shopping this weekend -- about 44 percent of the U.S. population.

"Consumers seem more settled this year, and high gas prices don't seem to be keeping shoppers out of the stores," said Tracy Mullin, retail federation president and CEO. The trade group predicts holiday sales will increase 4.5 percent this year from last year, yielding $219.9 billion in revenues.

The Consumer Intentions and Actions survey showed the average consumer plans to spend more than $700 this year on gifts, up from $672 last year.

"You prepare for this. You save for this," said Vanessa Benton, 38, of Cheektowaga, who shopped at Boulevard Mall with two cousins and their children.

Parking was at a premium at the Walden Galleria. Cars circled the aisles multiple times and followed people out from the mall entrances to secure a spot.

"The weather's good, pavement's dry, there's no snow. We expect that it's going to be a very good weekend," said James L. Soos, general manager of Walden Galleria.

At the Boulevard Mall, the parking lot was filling by 7:30 a.m., while shoppers wandered from sale to sale inside. Marketing director Betsey Bonvissuto said initial reports showed sales were better than last year.

"We had very strong traffic right off the bat this morning, and it's been steady all day long," she said. "We're off to a very good start."

The KB Toys store was so overwhelmed that officials had to limit the number of people in the store.

The freebies at Bon-Ton brought in so many people that each of the Galleria store's counters was overwhelmed with two to three dozen people, resulting in waits of as long as 90 minutes.

"They advertise all the sales, they want all the people in here, and then they only have three registers," complained Patricia Propis, 57, of Cheektowaga.

Shoppers admit some of their family and friends think they're insane for putting up with the lines, but they say it's just tradition. "Me and my daughter have done this for several years. It's just being together, being out here," said Teresa Giesler, 36, of Penn Yan.

e-mail: jepstein@buffnews.com

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