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'Tis the season to shop: Crowds looking for deals start hunting on Thursday

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The big Christmas shopping blitz got off to an earlier start than ever this year.

Black Friday? Try Black Thursday night.

Becky Sargent, a mother of three, started shopping at big-box retailers about 6 p.m. Thanksgiving Day and didn’t stop until Friday morning after visiting Imagination Station in downtown Columbus. It was her final stop shortly before 9 a.m., where she bought games and toys for three sons ranging from 4 to 9 years old.

“They have educational toys, unusual games, fun stuff,” Sargent said, explaining why she considers a holiday visit to the downtown toy shop a must.

Sargent, who lives in North Vernon, spent a 15-hour stretch shopping at a slew of other retailers, including Walmart, Kohl’s and Carson’s department store.

Most national retailers had elaborate Black Friday sales. But Walmart, for instance, started even earlier by staging a three-tiered sales event. It had specials on toys and games at 8 p.m. Thanksgiving night, when the parking lot of its west side store off Jonathan Moore Pike was full. It discounted electronics and gadgets at 10 p.m. Thursday and offered other deals starting at 5 a.m. Friday.

“I waited in one line at Walmart only to find out I had to wait another two hours for a particular gift,” Sargent said. “I did it, but I didn’t like it.”

Sargent said she prides herself on scouting out Christmas bargains. “I try to find the best sales I can,” she said.

Black Friday was named as such because that’s a day when retailing becomes very profitable — operating “in the black,” in accounting lingo.

Several Columbus area shoppers said they plan to increase their spending on Christmas presents this year, which is music to retailers’ ears.

Kmart shopper Phyllis Allison said she’ll spend $500 to $600 on gifts this Christmas, mainly for her grandchildren. That’s more than last year, primarily because one grandchild is about to move into a new house and needs house-warming gifts.

“I’m willing to spend money whenever I find something I like,” said Allison. “So far, it’s been clothes and a Samsung TV.”

At Carson’s department store in FairOaks Mall, signs at the front entrance blurted: “Shop Over 500 Door Busters.” Inside, signs atop display cases advertised 60 percent-off sales for jewelry. Other placards touted Laura Ashley cardigans on sale for $34.98 and Rampage boots for $19.97.

Kathy West, who works in the maintenance department at Columbus Regional Hospital, said she’ll end up spending up to $1,000 this Christmas for her husband, three children (ages 11, 19 and 24) and assorted friends.

On Friday, West was shopping to find gifts linked to an Angel Tree at her workplace to help a needy family.

“I’m getting comforters and sheets and something for the family’s children,” she said.

Shopping for her own brood will come later after her two youngest children spill the beans about what holiday gifts they want the most.

“I usually don’t go out on Black Friday because I don’t like mobs of people,” West said.

Downtown merchants such as men’s clothier Tom Dell didn’t try to mimic national big-box stores by rushing to open before dawn on Black Friday — or, heaven forbid, on Thanksgiving evening.

Instead, most local shop owners were content to bide their yuletide time and let chain stores battle for retail sales from midnight to 6 a.m. during the annual mad rush by bargain-hungry shoppers.

Retail clerk Montanna Link, 18, saw the rush first-hand during a hectic 10 p.m. (Thursday) to 7 a.m. (Friday) shift at the Edinburgh Premium Outlets mall, where she works at a Gap store.

“Things were real busy between midnight and 3 a.m.,” said Link, who earned her pay at Gap and then visited Fair­Oaks Mall to tackle her own Christmas shopping list with her mom and grandmother in tow.

Dell, who runs Dell Brothers Clothing, 416 Washington St., opened his doors at 9 a.m. — hours later than J.C. Penney, Walmart and other retail giants. No one camped outside to get a shot at a table of 50 percent-off sweaters he placed strategically near the store’s entrance.

Such is the lot of downtown merchants in Columbus — from gift-shop owners to clothiers to toy retailers.

Unlike big-box stores that count on coupons, midnight door-buster sales and steep Black Friday discounts to boost sales during a crazed 24-hour period, downtown shop owners say they’re content to fight for a share of consumers’ holiday spending throughout the long haul.

They try to boost sales by stocking unusual merchandise, offering personal service, providing free gift-wrapping and, in some cases, giving free delivery of merchandise to consumers’ homes.

“I don’t really see us competing with big-box stores and the online retailers,” said Craig Wells, co-owner of Imagination Station toy shop, 315 Washington St., as well as the company’s flagship location in Franklin.

“Last year, we opened at 6 a.m., but this year we pushed back our Black Friday opening until 8 a.m.,” he said. “We didn’t want anyone to feel rushed to get here. Some of our customers like the super-early shopping experience at the big stores, and we didn’t want to force them to choose.”

Still, Wells’ store had specials running for Black Friday, with all merchandise and toys from German-made Playmobil and Haba wooden toys and French-made Janod play-sets marked 30-percent off.

Wells’ strategy seemed to work. A steady trickle of customers visited his store around breakfast time.

Dell, the men’s clothier, and toy-store owner Wells said this Christmas season is a crucial one for store owners still trying to bounce back from the recession. Both men said sales have been a little slow so far, and they hope a holiday rush starts in earnest now that Thanksgiving is over.

The two shopkeepers hope to boost revenue in their downtown stores by staying open for extended holiday hours on targeted days during the next four weeks.

In Dell’s case, his clothing store will be open from noon to 4 p.m. Sundays through Christmas, and he’ll stay open as late as 8 p.m. Thursdays, as will many other downtown shops as part of a push to persuade consumers to buy locally more often.

But Dell said his clothing shop will never open Thanksgiving Day itself as more national retailers did this year in a bid to capture an extra share of Christmas spending.

“Thanksgiving is a family holiday,” Dell said. “We all can wait to shop the next day.”

The National Retail Federation expects U.S. sales during the holiday season to rise 4.1 percent this year, below last year’s 5.6 percent increase.

“The last two years have been a struggle,” Wells said. “It seems we’re always needing to make up ground, but this year it’s especially important.”

He said the city’s ongoing $1.7 million Fourth Street beautification project has made access to his toy shop more difficult and hurt sales.

But Jeff Baker, who runs Baker’s Fine Gifts and Accessories, 433 Washington St., is more upbeat. He said sales at his gift shop started to improve in October, the month after the street program began.

“The recession hit us here, just like it did everywhere else; but our store had its best October in five years, and I expect November to come in about the same,” he said on Black Friday.

Baker, who has owned the small gift shop for 28 years, said he’s optimistic about downtown’s long-term sales future because of what he sees as a livelier dining and residential scene within walking distance of his store.

When the Cole apartment building — with the potential for nearly 200 tenants — opens early next year, that will help even more, Baker said. He also said he might routinely stay open for four hours Sundays in 2013, in part because of that development.

“Living downtown has become more fashionable than it was when I opened my store years ago,” he said. “There are more interesting things to do in the area in the evenings and more of an urban feel.”

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