Busy Black Friday start for Bellingham retailers

BELLINGHAM -- With decent weather and the lure of bargain prices, it appeared the holiday shopping season was off to a busy start for local retailers.

Hundreds of people lined up at the big-box stores for the 4 a.m., 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. openings on Friday, Nov. 27. For the most part, shoppers appeared to be in good spirits while standing in line.

"We've been able to make friends while waiting for the store to open," said Jenny McCauley of Bellingham. McCauley and her daughter-in-law, Tammy McCauley, had been outside the Kohl's store since 2 a.m. and were among the first 50 in line. "It's great that we had good weather to stand out here and get to know some people."

At the Bellingham Wal-Mart, the new system for crowd control appeared a bit confusing for many customers, but it did seem to result in a more orderly Black Friday sale. In response to the trampling death of a Wal-Mart employee in New York last year, most Wal-Marts were open all night to prevent long lines and a stampede outside the store. The Black Friday sales weren't scheduled to start until 5 a.m., with the more popular sale items spread out in different parts of the store, guarded by Wal-Mart employees.

Many Wal-Mart Black Friday diehards weren't sure what to make of this, and showed up earlier than usual. Carrie Stephens of Blaine was inside the Wal-Mart store at 8:30 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, waiting next to a pallet of Rock Band Special Edition games that were covered in black bags. At around 10:30 p.m. the pallet was moved to a different part of the store, and she followed it. While waiting, she was able to fill her shopping cart with other items.

"I usually don't show up to the store until 3 a.m. (on Black Friday), but there seemed to be confusion about what to do this year," said Stephens, who added that she appreciated being able to stay relatively comfortable inside the store, rather than brave the elements outside all night.

At 4 a.m., the Wal-Mart parking lot was full and people were searching for spaces at nearby businesses. A half-hour later Wal-Mart employees began removing the black bags covering the special sale products and distributing them to people waiting in line. While it appeared confusing for shoppers, there were plenty of Wal-Mart employees on the floor, answering questions and directing people who were wondering which line to stand in to get a specific product.

Other big-box retailers seemed to have crowds similar to previous years. At Best Buy, the line of shoppers stretched past the front of TJ Maxx all the way to Costco; the Kohl's store had more than 500 people waiting in line at 4 a.m., with several hundred more walking up to the doors from the parking lot soon after opening. For those standing in line, the weather was relatively nice for Whatcom County: Temperatures were in the 40s with no rain and little wind.

Bellis Fair opened its main-entry doors at 4 a.m. to accommodate Old Navy's early start. Several other non-anchor stores took advantage of the early start by being open as well. Even though the official opening inside Bellis Fair wasn't until 6 a.m., there was a steady stream of shoppers wandering around the main portion of the mall by 5 a.m.

As for the items being purchased, it varied widely from store to store. The door-buster items were quickly snatched up: Jewelry and electronics seemed to be at the top of the list for many at the front of the early-morning lines. At Wal-Mart, Rock Band games disappeared quickly, while Tom-Tom GPS systems and flat-screen televisions were in many shopping carts.

Canadians also appeared to show up in force. There are no official numbers on how many were shopping in Bellingham, but the parking lots at Wal-Mart and Bellis Fair were filled with vehicles with British Columbia license plates. One factor may be the strong Canadian dollar, which has been around 95 cents compared to the U.S. dollar in recent weeks.