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Ready. Set. Shop.

At least that's how one-third of Americans will spend "Black Friday" -- the day after Thanksgiving and the official start of the holiday shopping season. Many lined up before dawn today to get first crack at freebies and sales at area department stores.

Some observers said the early-morning crowds were much larger than in recent years, with long lines of shoppers forming through mall corridors before stores opened. Traffic was heavy around some shopping centers, and parking lots were filling early.

The Bon-Ton lured shoppers with offering every early bird a $5 off coupon, and each store also had 75 quarter-carat diamond stud earings priced at $50, instead of the usual sale price of $100.

To prepare for the onslaught of shoppers, retailers have been pumping up their sales ranks with fresh recruits.

At Kaufmann's in the McKinley Mall in the Town of Hamburg, the number of sales associates increases about 50 percent for the holidays, said Craig Hirsch, human resources manager. That army of seasonal workers is needed to keep merchandise moving onto the sales floor and to help customers.

Kaufmann's has hired about the same number of seasonal workers as in past year, but saw the number of applicants increase this year.

"It's partly the economy," Hirsch said. "The thing I'm hearing from the applicants is that it's not as easy to find work. A lot more people who didn't need to work in the past year or two are looking for a second income for the holidays."

Seasonal workers can work as little as 10 or as many as 35 hours a week. All seasonal employees are paid by the hour, starting at $5.50 and going higher with experience.

JC Penney stores increase their number of sales associates by about 10 percent to 15 percent, said Stephanie Brown, a spokeswoman at the company's headquarters in Texas. The number of people applying for a job using the company's toll-free hotline rose 5 percent, she said.

"We are placing more emphasis on support roles, cashiers and stocking, and less emphasis on having people in the departments," she said. "People are concerned about getting in and getting out and finding what they want."

This will be the first holiday season that all 1,061 JC Penney stores will have centralized check-out registers.

Owners of many small, locally owned stores don't hire more help for the holiday season. They just work longer hours themselves.

The three owners of Carriage Quilt Shoppe in the Village of East Aurora are putting in more hours to keep the store open later on Thursday nights as part of the local chamber of commerce's push to have shopper patronize local stores.

"We're working days, nights, Sundays," said Linda Setlock, who owns the store with Susie Baker and Cindy Mecca. "We have no employees as of right now. You could say we're strictly self-employed."

The store, which opened three years ago, sells Amish quilts and other handmade items, as well as machine quilting fabric brought in by customers.

How much retailers sell this weekend will provide some indication of what type of holiday season retailers can expect. And it's a shorter holiday shopping season than usual. There are only 26 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the fewest possible. A shopping season with 32 days is the longest possible.


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