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      Earlier deals, longer hours woo US shoppers

      NEW YORK (AP) " The American holiday shopping season began in earnest Friday as stores opened at midnight " a few hours earlier than they normally do on the most anticipated shopping day of the year. A few retailers even had lines of waiting shoppers when they opened on the Thanksgiving harvest holiday on Thursday.

      The openings were mostly peaceful, but Los Angeles authorities say 20 people at a Walmart store suffered minor injuries when a woman used pepper spray to gain a "competitive" shopping advantage shortly after the store opened on Thursday evening. In North Carolina police were looking for two suspects after gunfire erupted early Friday at a mall. And police said two women were injured and a man was charged after a fight broke out at a Walmart in New York state.

      Protests were planned Friday in places like Chicago and Washington, D.C. to get people to reconsider shopping at national chains on what is known as Black Friday. Such protests haven't stopped the crowds " more than 9,000 people were outside the flagship Macy's store in New York City at its midnight opening.

      Retailers hope the earlier openings will make Black Friday shopping more convenient for Americans who are more likely to be worried about high unemployment and other challenges they face in the weak economy. Black Friday is important to merchants because it kicks off the holiday shopping season, a time when they can make 25 to 40 percent of their annual revenue. It's expected that shoppers will spend nearly $500 billion during the holiday shopping season, or about 3 percent more than they did last year.

      "It's a good move to try to get shoppers to spend sooner, before they run out of money," says Burt Flickinger, III, president of retail consultancy Strategic Resource Group.

      About 34 percent of consumers plan to shop on Black Friday, up from 31 percent last year, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers, and 16 percent had planned to shop on Thanksgiving Day itself. For the weekend, 152 million people are expected to shop, up from 138 million last year.

      To get people to shop, merchants pulled out of their bag of tricks. Only a few opened last year at midnight, but several more stores followed this year. Some are offering to match the prices of competitors. Others are offering layaway plans that allow shoppers to pay as they go.

      But the deals are what's driving many early shoppers into stores.

      The Gap is offering discounts of 60 percent, 40 percent and 20 percent discounts off many items. Old Navy has pea coats for $29 and jeans for $15. Toys R Us is selling a Transformers Ultimate Optimus Prime action figure for $30 off at $47.99 and a Power Wheels Barbie vehicle for $120 off for $199.99. And Best Buy has a $499 42-inch LCD HDTV for $199.

      Millie Ayala, 28-year-old receptionist, began standing in line at a Toys R Us in New York at 5:30 p.m. on Thanksgiving, armed with the retailer's circular and a plan for how she and her sister would scour the store for deals. On her list? An interactive dog named Cookie and some baby dolls for her two young daughters.

      "Finances have been tough," she says. "Things are a lot more expensive, but with Black Friday deals things are more affordable."

      After showing up at Best Buy in New York on Wednesday afternoon at 3 p.m., Emmanuel Merced, 27, and his brother were the first in line before it opened. On their list was a Sharp 42-inch TV for $199, a PlayStation 3 console with games for $199.99 and wireless headphones for $30. Merced said he likes camping out for Black Friday and he figures he saved 50 percent.

      "I like the experience of it," said Merced, who plans to spend $3,000 to $4,000 on gifts this season.

      It remains to be seen whether that enthusiasm will linger throughout the holiday shopping season. But analysts seem to agree that if retailers want shoppers to keep coming back, they'll have to keep discounting.

      "The consumer is continuing to spend and shop and look for the bargains," says said John D. Morris, BMO Capital Markets analyst. "If it's the right product at the right price, she's shopping and buying."


      Anne D'Innocenzio in New York and Tamara Lush in St. Petersburg, Florida, contributed to this report.

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