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"Black Friday" shoppers might not enjoy standing in them, but that's the price they pay to compete for early-riser discounts.

For store managers, those lines are positive economic indicators, signs that the holiday shopping season is off to a healthy start.

"You can tell by the lines," said Beth Hand, general manager of the Bon-Ton at the Eastern Hills Mall, when asked how the day was going.

She wasn't just talking about the lines inside the store, either.

"We had customers waiting outside the door, in the dark, with their coffee," she said.

With Thanksgiving arriving late on the calendar this year -- and shortening the retail run-up to Christmas by six days -- merchants were looking for a strong turnout by shoppers on what's considered the first "official" day of the shopping blitz.

Among those standing in line were Diane and Garrett Lunn of Lockport, with their two young children in tow. The family had set out early, about 8 a.m., to hit the stores.

"I feel kind of like, if I don't come out, I might miss something," Diane Lunn said. "So I at least come and see."

Her approach backs up what Scott Krugman of the National Retail Federation says about Black Friday: it's a big day for shopping, but not usually the biggest day of the year for sales. The Saturday before Christmas typically holds that distinction.

"Don't look at numbers (of shoppers) -- look at shopping bags," Krugman said of sizing up Black Friday activity.

The American Express Retail Index estimated that 85 percent of Friday's shoppers would include a stop at a mass merchandiser, such as Wal-Mart or Target, on their shopping itinerary.

Across Western New York, malls and shopping centers were thronged Friday morning. Attractive discounts and free gift offers appeared to draw larger crowds than last year.

At the Walden Galleria, cars were prowling the parking lot in search of scarce parking spaces. Inside the big discount stores, customers were stocking up on everything from toys to clothes to holiday decor.

A Target employee in Cheektowaga repeatedly returned to the parking lot to retrieve the store's supply of shopping carts -- a retail version of the myth of Sisyphus, who was fated to push a rock up a mountain, only to have it roll back down as soon as he reached the top.

So was all of the commotion -- the lines, the store-buster discounts, the jammed parking lots -- an indication that the entire 2002 holiday shopping season will be a huge success?

Not necessarily, Krugman said. While Black Friday is consistently in the top 10 in shopping sales days in a given year, the stores still size up the results of that first "official" day and make adjustments as necessary for the remaining weeks.

Still, the Retail Federation of America believes "overall things are going to be positive," Krugman said. The group predicts a 4 percent increase in holiday retail sales from a year ago.

But predictions vary. The Gallup Organization, which surveyed 3,000 consumers, said Americans are projected to spend $769 on gifts this holiday season, down about $51 from last year, which in turn was lower than 2000 and 1999.

Edie Clark of the International Mass Retail Association says Black Friday -- so named for the big profits generated on that day -- does give stores a gauge of how shoppers responded to the specials, and what might be ahead for the rest of the season.

On Black Friday last year, Wal-Mart recorded $1.25 billion in sales, its best day ever, Clark said. Discount department stores went on to record an increase in holiday sales in 2001 over the previous year.

The organization said that one in 10 Americans expected to do most of their holiday shopping on Friday.

Stacy McFall was way ahead of them. The Lockport resident said she was finishing up her holiday shopping on Friday, making her the envy of procrastinating gift-buyers everywhere.

McFall's own wish list is modest this year. "I just want a cookbook," she said as she prepared to buy a chess set and a "Star Wars" tree ornament.

Jim Bottone, an Attica native who now lives in Indiana, was looking forward to finishing up his shopping rounds for the day with his wife.

Bottone's wish list is simple, too. "All I really want is 'The Godfather' series," he said.

In other words, an offer someone else couldn't refuse.


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