'Black Friday' crowds lift retailers' gloom at start of month-long spree

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The Independent Online

Crowds queued round the block for the 6am opening of New York's giant department store Macy's yesterday, and malls across the US opened at midnight to lure consumers to the official start of the Christmas shopping spree.

This year's "Black Friday" - the day after Thanksgiving, so-named because it is the day when retailers are traditionally said to become profitable for the year - was being described as one of the busiest ever, and raised hopes that the holiday season may not be the washout retailers had previously dreaded.

Economists too hailed the positive early anecdotal evidence, saying buoyant consumer spending could prop up the US economy and improve the outlook for 2007.

As usual, retailers offered early-bird discounts and planned bizarre publicity stunts to kick-start the month of Christmas shopping. David Blaine, the magician, had freed himself after being shackled to a gyroscope in Times Square so as to lead 100 children on a shopping expedition to Target, the discount retail chain. A third more shopping malls opened early than did so last year.

"Retailers really went all-out to offer some substantial discounts this weekend to bring people in to their stores," said Ellen Davis, senior director of the National Retail Federation (NRF). "Everything we've seen indicates that consumers are responding."

Disappointing sales figures from a string of major retailers - most notably from Wal-Mart, America's largest chain - had raised fears that consumers were tightening their belt amid talk of a slowing economy. Wal-Mart itself has already triggered a price war with big price cuts on electrical goods.

But the latest predictions are for a 5 per cent rise in overall Christmas spending in the US, according to the NRF.