Black Friday Turnout: No Miracle on 34th Street

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Yana Paskova / Getty

A crowd of shoppers hunts for bargains at Macy's on November 28, 2008, in New York City.

The best way to make sure you get up in time for the 5 a.m. early bird specials on Black Friday is never to go to bed the night before. That's how Christian Perdomo, 15, was able to snag one of the 200 free Samsung MP3 players that Old Navy gave away at its megastore on 34th Street in New York City, along with the $120 worth of clothes he had purchased by 6 a.m. But even though there were still some 200 people in line at dozens of registers by 10 a.m., Liz, a cashier, said, "I think last year was a little busier."

The Black Friday shopping frenzy was palpable in midtown Manhattan on Friday as dozens of clothing retailers touted their "door buster" sales of 50% or more off everything from diamond jewelry to cotton hoodies. Crowds even broke one of the doors at Macy's Men's Store. That paled in comparison to the death of a Wal-Mart worker in Long Island who reportedly got trampled to death by bargain hunters. But by mid-morning on 34th Street, many stores were half empty and some sales staff said they had noticed that shoppers were holding back this year. (Looking for the perfect Black Friday purchase? See TIME's list of the 10 best gift ideas.)

"It's slower. They're not buying the big stuff," said a sales person at Macys flagship store in Herald Square, who asked not to be named. A $400 diamond bracelet had been marked down to $99, but there were more sales people standing near it than customers. Instead, shortly after 7 a.m., a crowd was hovering around a display of costume jewelry priced at $9.99 each.

A block away at Steve Madden, manager Francesca Ruggiero lamented that the store hadn't even sold $4000 worth of footwear by 9 a.m., even though it had opened at 6 a.m., an hour earlier than last year. Next door, Victoria's Secret manager Linda Petar told TIME, "We're on target," although by 8:45 a.m. the shop had sold less than $80,000 worth of merchandise toward its goal of $650,000 for the day. Other stores, including Perfumania, Fossil and Aerosoles all looked fairly desolate by 8 a.m., despite the perky signs beckoning, "Come In. We're Open."

Yet even with the recession, some folks were still making big purchases. Millicent Davis, a nighttime home health aide in Long Island City, says she hits the Black Friday sales every year. Her hours got cut back from seven days a week to just three this year, but she still bought a $300 North Face jacket for her son at Macys. She decided to pass on a $128 handbag for herself, however. Across the street at Old Navy, Viviana Alonso, 26, was packing a red Samsonite suitcase full of handbags, sweaters, socks and shirts inside the entrance. On vacation from Caracas, Venezuela, she had just bought the $150 suitcase that morning, and estimated that she had spent about $1000 in all since 5 a.m.

While everyone said they had risen before dawn in order to take advantage of Black Friday deals, there was little consensus on whether they were really saving money overall. "The recession is on and we're trying to save money," said Renita Raghubir, 22, who had just splurged on some Guess and DKNY jeans. Meanwhile, her mother had purchased a $350 handbag for her 17-year-old sister, and there were still more purchases to be made.

As in past years, many shoppers' purchases were really gifts for themselves. Nicholas Luciano, 16, said he spent $400 that he had earned from an after-school job at McDonalds on six sweaters, three pairs of jeans and a pair of sneakers from American Eagle Outfitters. Although he bought one gift for his Mom, he still needs more. Now he has to find Christmas gifts for the rest of the family. Retailers can only hope that Luciano's Black Friday enthusiasm is contagious.

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