Doug Livingston
and Carol Biliczky

With diehard bargain hunters braving long and cold lines Thursday night, more amicable shopping prevailed on Black Friday as families came together to stretch a buck.

Isabel Budzinski polished her shopping style at the tender age of 20 months.

At the Target store in Fairlawn, she piloted not one but two pint-size, pink plastic shopping carts under the watchful eye of grandpa Jim Lee of Brecksville.

“She already asks for money — play money,” said mom Tracy Budzinski, who drove from Cedar Falls, Iowa, to be in Ohio with family on the holiday.

Overall, the National Retail Federation expects retail sales to be up 4 percent to $602 billion during the last two months of the year. That’s higher than last year’s 3.5 percent growth, but below the 6 percent pace seen before the recession.

Analysts expect sales to be generated at the expense of profits, as retailers will likely have to do more discounting to get people into stores.

Black Thursday?

Black Friday used to mark the undisputed start of the holiday shopping season. On the day after Thanksgiving, stores offer steeply discounted items that drag consumer sales figures out of the red and into the black.

But in recent years, Thanksgiving Day has inched into the limelight as superstores across the nation open earlier and earlier, forcing bargain hunters to form long lines before getting a chance to digest turkey dinner.

Akron area shoppers came out in droves on Thanksgiving, when Walmart, Target, Kmart and other large retailers opened as early as 6 p.m. Workers’ rights groups protesting the extended holiday hours had planned to demonstrate on Thanksgiving. Union representatives told the Associated Press that “peaceful arrests” were been made in nine cities, the nearest to Akron being Chicago.

While some shoppers pitied holiday workers, many found that the early push had thinned the Black Friday crowd the next day, giving longtime shoppers such as Kathleen Schuman of Streetsboro just one more reason to be thankful on Thanksgiving.

Standing behind a soon-to-be-filled shopping cart just inside the entrance of Target on Howe Avenue in Cuyahoga Falls, Schuman took a moment to appreciate the sacrifice of the thousands who braved the intense shopping the night before.

“I think having the stores open yesterday really helped,” Schuman said in the ninth hour of an annual Black Friday shopping spree with her daughter.

She said she prefers to spend Thanksgiving with family and not be out chasing deals. But she’s glad that not everyone thinks like her. “For those that did [shop early]: thank you, because it did make it nicer to shop today,” she said.

Amid the grimaced faces of upset drivers and sea of misplaced carts, many local shoppers found lines to be shorter than usual as big-box stores in the Akron area slashed prices, offering door-buster deals for Black Friday.

Early shoppers

Among the early birds who Schuman wanted to thank was Obon Jones, who sat groggy Friday afternoon at a food court table at Chapel Hill Mall in Akron. His shopping began the night before at Walmart.

Jones took a moment to rest Friday afternoon while his 4-year-old daughter Ariana — who he was convinced would keep him up the rest of the day — bounced on his knee and enjoyed a frozen cherry drink.

Jones grabbed some toys for his daughter and gifts for his parents when Walmart opened earlier than usual at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving.

“It was pretty bad. Long lines. More lines,” Jones said, noting that opening earlier made difference.

“It was still chaos,” he said. “Although it was better than last year.”

With 22 million customers on Thanksgiving Day last year, Walmart reported a higher turnout this year. Although a specific number was not available, Walmart said it completed 10 million register transactions before 10 p.m. Thursday and the company’s website received more than 400 million visits throughout the day, with mobile users accounting for 53 percent of total traffic.

On Friday afternoon, an IBM Benchmark report said e-commerce sales rose 20 percent on Thanksgiving compared with last year. Still, heavy discounting and coupons depressed the dollar transactions. The number of items shoppers threw in rose 1 percent, but the average order size slipped 2.5 percent to $127.59.

IBM also said traffic from mobile devices accounted for 43 percent of all online traffic on Thanksgiving, up from 32 percent a year ago.

Adding to the chaos were customers returning items purchased days or weeks before Black Friday. Some said the purchase prices had fallen and were looking to cash in on the discounted shopping day.

A spokesperson for Walmart could not confirm that customers were looking for a last-minute swap to save money. The spokesperson said Walmart stores would continue to match competitors’ advertised prices and that customer service lines were actually no longer than usual at the Brimfield store.

Retailer out shopping

Penny Porter is familiar with the whole buy-first-then-price-check-and-return-later idea.

“They buy it early. They wait to see if it goes on sale. Then they bring it back,” the Tallmadge woman said. With the refund, they can repurchase the item at a lower price.

Porter retired from retail three years ago after working 41 years at numerous stores, including Ames, Walmart and Hills, she said. “You name it; I worked it.”

In all, she said she was pleased with how stores indicated sale items and kept customers cycling through the checkout lanes.

“I think they’ve done a much better job about getting the specials out there so you can find them,” said Schuman, the Streetsboro woman who has participated in Black Friday with her daughter for nearly a decade.

The mother-daughter team went to bed at 9 p.m. Thanksgiving night so that they could be at Toys R Us by 4 a.m., then Sears a half-hour later, and so on.

After three hours in the mall — and three trips to load shopping bags into the car — the two took a break at the food court.

“Caffeine always helps. It goes a long way,” said Schuman, calm and collected and ready to finish off the 12-hour shopping day, during which they expect to turn $600 into $1,800 worth of merchandise.

For many, the day is more about family than shopping. “I’m so blessed to go out and do this with my daughter,” Schuman said. “This is my Christmas gift.”

Schuman added that in 10 years, she hasn’t come across a mean-spirited shopper on Black Friday.