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NEW YORK Black Friday traffic and sales indications appeared to be topping expectations, giving an encouraging note that consumers may be more willing to loosen their purse strings as retailers kick off their biggest selling season of the year.

In another encouraging sign, while women used to dominate early morning Black Friday shopping, many younger people and male shoppers have joined the fray, he said. Shoppers also were splurging on items for themselves, buying beyond what’s being promoted on items including watches, fragrance and women’s boots, he said.

“We are seeing both self purchases and gift purchases,” Mr. Lundgren said. Black Friday “is a good indicator if business is good, (and) so far it looks good. If (the flagship) store is an indication of the rest, it looks very good.”

Macy’s is not alone. Retailers including Target Corp. and Staples Inc. and mall owners such as Taubman said they have seen higher traffic or sales at stores and properties surveyed Friday morning. as shoppers snatched morning specials such as a Westinghouse 40 inch flat panel TV for $298.

“Our general tone comment bullish,” Stifel Nicolaus Co. analyst David Schick reported after early store visits in three states. “It seems consumers are out and ready to spend.”

The analyst said that might translate to a 4 percent or 5 percent holiday spending increase this year from a year ago, which would be at the top end of the range of mainstream holiday estimates. Trade group National Retail Federation, for instance, forecast holiday sales to rise 2.3 percent.

While consumer spending remains uneven and is not back to pre recession levels, various surveys and forecasts have pointed to this holiday season as the potentially best in at least three years.

At Walmart stores, long lines also were reported, with hot sellers such as a 15.6 inch Hewlett Packard laptop for $298.

At 34th Street and Broadway in New York early Friday, throngs of shoppers were seen toting bags from various stores with locations in the vicinity. in the retail industry’s biggest annual marketing and sales extravaganza.

For one day at least, you could almost imagine the recession never happened. Millions of the nation’s shoppers braved rain and cold to crowd stores while others grabbed online bargains on what could be the busiest Black Friday ever.

Early signs pointed to bigger crowds at many stores including Best Buy, Sears,
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Macy’s and Toys R Us, some of which had earlier openings than past years or even round the clock hours. Minnesota’s Mall of America and mall operators Taubman Centers Inc. and Macerich Co. also reported more customers than last year.

But the most encouraging sign for retailing and for the economy was what Americans were throwing in their carts. Shoppers still clutched lists and the buying frenzy was focused on the deals on TVs and toys, but many were treating themselves while they bought gifts for others, adding items like boots, sumptuous sweaters, jewelry and even dresses for special occasions. A few hours later, Michelle had picked out several presents for herself, including a pair of UGG boots, perfume and an iPod Touch. At Nordstrom, she scored a long sleeved purple shirt that her mother let her wear out of the store.

“Last year we were careful,” said Ms. Breton, whose husband’s beer distribution business is recovering. “This year we’ll do more.”

The strong Black Friday builds on retailers’ momentum after a solid start to November.

“Last year, consumers were extremely into the basics, the socks, the pillows,” said Keith Jelinek, director of global retail practice at consulting firm AlixPartners. “This year, they’re hungry to dress up their wardrobes, their homes. Shoppers were buying items with a little more pizazz.”

Sharply reduced prices on flat screen TVs helped fuel many stores’ sales, said Marshal Cohen, market research analyst at NPD Group Inc.

Research firm ShopperTrak is expected to release Black Friday data today, but a full picture of how retailers fared won’t be known until Thursday, when major retailers report their monthly sales results.
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