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Shoppers line up at stores eager for happy holiday

Stephen Gillam is a patient man.

The IPFW professor shopped with his family on Black Friday and wanted to check out the latest stereo equipment. His wife, Chris, however, was after a scooter and a popular Wii video game title. As a teacher of physics, Gillam understands the science of energy and matter.

So, there was no use wasting his energy because it wouldn’t matter.

“I have to wait,” Gillam said, smiling, after his wife rattled off a few items on their gift list. “I’m hoping to get a look at some wireless stuff, but this comes first.”

The Gillams were among thousands kicking off the Christmas shopping season in northeast Indiana. The National Retail Federation expects modest sales this year for a period that could make or break some retailers. The association from Washington, D.C., expects holiday sales to increase 4.1 percent to $586 billion.

Shopping appeared brisk along retail corridors in Fort Wayne.

At J.C. Penney, which has experienced some backlash over its “everyday low prices” program, customers stood in lines that ranged from 30 to 70 people deep at times Friday afternoon. Outside Glenbrook Square, vehicles from Indiana dominated the parking lot, but Ohio license plates also dotted the area.

Retail consultant Jennifer Cherry said she isn’t surprised by Penney’s traffic.

“I think people are realizing that they are offering some real good prices (daily),” said Cherry, a senior vice president at Marx Lane Co., a marketing firm in the metro Detroit area. “It took awhile for them to warm to that, but I think Penney’s is making some headway.”

More than that, younger shoppers are starting to frequent the retailer more.

“It’s not viewed as a place where my mother or grandmother shops anymore,” Cherry said. “Penney’s had said it was going to get hip and cool, but now they’ve really done something about it with the fashion selection.”

Fort Wayne 22-year-old Justin Walker said he shopped at Glenbrook Square to grab a new pair of sneakers from the Finish Line for pickup basketball games at the YMCA. He bought his Levi’s 501 Jeans from Penney’s, though.

“That’s why I came here,” Walker said.

Jefferson Pointe opened its new access road Friday. The private drive runs past Carmike Jefferson, formally Rave Cinemas. The road was built to ease congestion and feed traffic into the retail area. Nut House owner Kim Barton is one of only a few local retailers at the mall, and she appreciates the new road.

“I’m so happy,” she said, adding that most of her business Friday was from Ohio residents looking for stocking stuffers. The Nut House offers 31 varieties of fresh roasted products. “The corporate orders are what really help me. Things have been busy.”

But this season appears to mark the end of Black Friday as we know it.

For decades, stores opened their doors in the wee hours of the morning on the day after Thanksgiving. But this year that changed. Major chains including Target and Toys R Us opened on Thanksgiving itself, turning the traditional “busiest shopping day of the year” into a two-day affair.

The earlier hours are an effort by stores to make shopping as convenient as possible for Americans. Retailers fear some consumers wouldn’t otherwise spend freely during the two-month holiday season in November and December because of economic uncertainty. Many shoppers are worried about high unemployment and whether or not Congress will be able to reach a budget deal by January before spending cuts and tax increases known as the “fiscal cliff” take effect.

As a result, brick-and-mortar retailers have been trying everything they can to lure consumers into stores. Some stores tested the earlier hours last year, but this year more retailers opened their doors late on Thanksgiving. In addition to expanding their hours, many also are offering free layaway and shipping, matching the cheaper prices of online rivals and updating their mobile shopping apps with more information.

“Every retailer wants to beat everyone else,” said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America’s Research Group, a research firm based in Charleston, S.C. “Shoppers love it.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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