Nation's retailers hope discounts lure shoppers

It was cold, it was dark and in some places it was foggy. None of that would stop millions of bargain-seekers from climbing into their cars for a pre-dawn raid on their local malls, electronics retailers and discounters for the official start to the holiday season.

''Great deals. I'm shopping for everybody today. We hit Target. We're going to Meijer. We hit Sears. We started shopping at 5 a.m.,'' Joanne Dosant, a 36-year-old legal assistant from Windsor, Ontario, said Friday as she loaded her SUV with two cartloads of items from a Target store in Madison Heights, Mich.

The aggressive tactics used to lure shoppers out before sunrise on Black Friday apparently worked. Based on early reports, the expanded hours, increased discounting and free money as gift cards drove hordes of shoppers to stores to buy flat-screen TVs, computers and toys.

''Large crowds drive me nuts, but this was my Christmas present to myself,'' said Mark Demers, 23, of Bristol, Conn., who had camped out overnight in front of the Best Buy store in West Hartford, Conn., for the 5 a.m. opening after seeing a TV commercial late Thursday touting $500 off the $1,500 price tag for a 42-inch LCD TV made by Westinghouse.

Clearly, Black Friday is ''becoming the biggest sport,'' said Marshal Cohen, chief analyst at NPD Group Inc., observing that shoppers this year bought fewer, but pricier items than a year ago.

A growing number of stores such as KB Toys opened at midnight. Some, like CompUSA Inc. and BJ's Wholesale Club opened on Thanksgiving Day for the first time.

Overall, the biggest draws were consumer electronics, particularly flat-screen TVs, laptop computers and digital cameras. Toys fared well, too. In addition to the hard-to-find Fisher-Price TMX Elmo, shoppers snapped up other items like anything Dora, robot toys, Fisher-Price's Kids Tough Digital Camera and Jakks-Pacific FlyWheel XPV, according to toy merchants.

But clothing, mirroring a trend in recent years, took a back seat, Cohen said: ''Apparel will be the late bloomer, making mall-based apparel stores a little nervous.''