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Shoppers blitz stores as holiday shopping season kicks off

    ATLANTA — Bleary-eyed shoppers stormed Georgia stores on Friday to ring in the official start of the holiday shopping season as retailers counting on hordes of shoppers unleashed a blitz of sales.
    David Hsu, an Atlanta computer programmer, bought more than $1,500 worth of merchandise, including an Xbox game console, a laptop, computers, monitors and printers. But he’s certain the booty is worth at least twice that much.
    ‘‘It was definitely worth it,’’ he said.
    Hsu queued up at the store Thursday evening at 9:30 and was shocked to discover he was the 45th person in line. ‘‘That means there were 44 people more crazy than me,’’ he said. ‘‘But I’m not giving up my Thanksgiving dinner.’’
    Recognizing a potentially tough shopping season ahead, stores began discounting weeks ago, with such gimmicks as door busters and expanded hours. While top luxury stores continue to do well, merchants that cater to middle and lower income shoppers have suffered as consumers struggle with higher gas and food prices and a slumping housing market.
    Last year, retailers had a good start during the Thanksgiving weekend, but many stores struggled in December and a shopping surge just before and after Christmas wasn’t enough to make up for lost sales.
    This year, analysts expect sales gains to be the weakest in five years. Washington-based National Retail Federation predicted that total holiday sales will be up 4 percent for the combined November and December period, the slowest growth since a 1.3 percent rise in 2002.
    It’s also an opportunity for companies to attract new customers. Coca-Cola Co. is planning a tree lighting at the new World of Coca-Cola museum in downtown Atlanta partly to draw more foot traffic to a part of town that’s struggling to lure more holiday shoppers.
    ‘‘We want to add special cheer downtown,’’ said Petro Kacur, a Coke spokesman. ‘‘We hope it restarts a tradition to bring people downtown.’’
    While Black Friday tends to be one of the busiest days of the season, it’s not a predictor of how retailers will fare during the shopping surge. But it does set the tone, since the sales consumers see that day typically influence where they will shop.
    And most of those shoppers blitzing the stores Friday morning seemed rather savvy.
    When the Best Buy’s doors opened at 5 a.m., the brunt of the group immediately shuffled to the back of the store in search of deals on speedy computers and snazzy flat-screen televisions.
    ‘‘I have been biding my time,’’ said Jason Parris, who trucked out a 42-inch TV he’s been waiting to buy since his old one winked out. ‘‘I hope I got a good deal. You never know until you turn it on.’’
    Customers at a nearby Target seemed equally disciplined.
    ‘‘I had a game plan. I looked at ads, checked out Black Friday Web sites for this deal,’’ said Ryan Bauer, moments after he snapped up a 37-inch flat screen TV for his bedroom for $550. ‘‘I’m pretty excited. This is the best price I’ve seen.’’
    But for Bauer, the thrill’s not in the hunt.
    ‘‘There’s no thrill at all,’’ the 27-year-old said flatly. ‘‘I’d rather be asleep.’’
    ———
    Associated Press Writer Anne D’Innocenzio in New York contributed to this report.

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