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Deals lure shoppers away from the holiday; Thanksgiving finds ?bargain hunters in line

Jason Levesque of Niagara Falls rejected a Thanksgiving feast Thursday in favor of sating his appetite for an early Black Friday bargain – a Barbie Powerwheel for his 2-year-old daughter that was selling for $150 below retail.

Levesque and Phil Sembert, also of Niagara Falls, were the first two in line as the doors to the Toys R Us store off Niagara Falls Boulevard in Amherst opened promptly at 8 p.m. Hundreds of other eager bargain hunters queued up behind them in an orderly assemblage that snaked around building.

"I'm not going to run; my legs are frozen," said Sembert, as the power-shopping was ready to get under way.

Fortunately, there was no need, as patrons were allowed in only a few at a time and issued a shopping cart before descending upon the aisles. It's the new way of doing things as Black Friday sales kicked off hours earlier this year.

"I called ahead [Wednesday], and ?[the store officials] said, ‘Don't plan to eat dinner if you want to be first in line,' ?" said Levesque.

He and Sembert had been waiting outside Toys R Us since noon Thursday.

Several blocks away, at the Best Buy electronics store off Bailey Avenue, Mike Jones of Amherst and his two companions had been camped out in lawn chairs behind a barricade since 10 a.m. Thursday. By 5 p.m., they still had seven more hours to wait before the doors of the electronics retailer opened.

"We actually postponed [Thanksgiving] dinner until tomorrow. We postponed it specifically for this," Jones said.

"In these times, with the economy, you've got to do what you've got to do to get the gifts you want to buy as cheaply as you can. You've got to make everyone happy for Christmas. So, I don't think any of these people minded shifting Thanksgiving for a day," Jones added.

Stores also have been offering more of their Black Friday deals online, often days in advance of the stores. Bon-Ton, for instance, offered down alternative comforters online for $19.97 on Wednesday. By noon, some already were sold out.

"In order to jump-start sales, many retailers rolled out holiday deals earlier than ever," said Catlin Levis, an analyst at Redbook Research.

For retailers, a lot is riding on the Black Friday weekend and the holiday season, which accounts for about 20?percent of all retail industry sales, according to the National Retail Federation.

The all-out rush begins during the four-day Black Friday weekend, which runs from Thanksgiving through Sunday, and has accounted for a little more than 10?percent of all holiday sales during each of the last three years, according to data from ShopperTrak and the retail federation. Black Friday traditionally is the busiest shopping day of the year.

Walmart tempted shoppers with a $38 LG Blu-ray player and a $399 bundle that included an Apple iPad 2 tablet and a $75 gift card. Target was selling a mid-range Gateway laptop for $349. Sears was dangling a 50-inch Toshiba LED TV for $299.

And the Black Friday weekend shopping frenzy has grown markedly since the recession hit. The number of shoppers venturing out to stores or shopping ?online has swelled by more than 50 percent since the recession, rising to an estimated 226?million last year from 147?million in 2007, the retail groups estimated. A recent retail federation survey predicts shopping traffic could ?be down by about 3?percent this year on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Still, expectations are fairly upbeat for holiday shopping spending this year. The National Retail Federation is predicting a 4.1?percent increase this year

"Consumers appear to be in better spirits than last year," said Lynn Franco, director of economic indicators at the Conference Board. "Retailers are cautiously optimistic that this holiday shopping season will be better than last."

Across upstate New York, about two-thirds of shoppers plan to spend as much, or more, than they did last year, down from three-quarters last year, according to a survey released this week by the Siena Research Institute. Roughly 10?percent of shoppers expect to spend more this year than they did during 2011, while 56 percent expect to spend about the same, the survey found.

"The economy continues to be a concern," said Donald Levy, the research institute's director, noting that 30?percent of the upstate residents surveyed said their personal finances deteriorated in the past year.

With the economy still struggling, retailers have steadily pushed up their store opening times, with a growing number now launching their Black Friday sales on Thanksgiving, thinking that the earlier start time will give them a better chance of capturing a bigger share of shoppers' holiday budgets.

Yet despite the lines outside local stores on Thursday, the Siena survey indicated the encroachment of holiday shopping into the holiday isn't wildly popular.

Almost seven of every 10 upstate residents surveyed said they didn't think stores should open on Thanksgiving, though the earlier openings were viewed favorably by younger shoppers. More than half of shoppers between the ages of 18 and 34 said stores should open on Thanksgiving night.

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