Shoppers throughout South Jersey fought early morning crowds and cold temperatures to snag Black Friday deals as retailers got an early glimpse of critical holiday sales.

At The Walk in Atlantic City, many shops opened at 6 a.m., including H&M, where about 150 people lined up outside for a store promotion — scratch-off tickets for merchandise discounts.

"Last year, we were here. They had some pretty nice sales. We got like $150 worth of clothes for $50, so I'm expecting that this year," said Alberto Pelaez, 19, of Atlantic City.

He and his friends had waited in the cold since 3:45 a.m. They watched the movie, "Lawless," on a laptop to pass time.

This weekend will be an important measure for area businesses, particularly following the effects of Hurricane Sandy on stores and residents alike, said Nick Ballias, owner of the Cabo Crepe Café in Atlantic City.

"I think this whole area really needed a holiday to get everybody back in the spirit and happy again," said Ballias, 31, of Linwood. "A lot of people were hurting. We needed a good holiday —family and being together — so everybody could get back to normalcy."

Ballias' café catered sandwich trays, bagels and muffins to nearby shops at The Walk to feed employees during the long Friday workday.

"It's looking good so far," he said. "This should be a very busy time for us. We need the stores to be busy. When the shopping's busy, we do well, too."

Black Friday has been the traditional kickoff of holiday shopping, although more retailers have been pushing earlier promotions and earlier store hours, some on Thanksgiving.

Businesses can see 20 percent to 40 percent of their total annual sales from this weekend to Dec. 31, making it a crucial time of year, said John Holub, president of the New Jersey Retail Merchants Association.

The National Retail Federation, which expects 147 million Americans to shop from Black Friday to Sunday, will release an early measure of consumer habits and spending on Sunday afternoon. Last year, the average shopper spent about $400 in the three-day period.

The trade group estimates holiday sales will reach $586 billion this year, about 4 percent more than last year.

"You definitely need to keep it in perspective," Holub said of Black Friday. "It's not the make-or-break point, but it sets the tone or tenor for the entire holiday season. You want to get off on a strong point."

In Mays Landing, the Hamilton Mall opened at midnight and brought an early rush of shoppers through the early morning, said general manager Bill Schu, who reported traffic was good.

People rushed through the doors when the mall opened, but there were no injuries, Schu said.

Black Friday deals brought out Shanti Brock, 28, of Atlantic City, who was at the Walmart in Mays Landing at 3 a.m. and bought a 50-inch television for $298, she said.

"I was just going there to see what they had for sale," she said. "One guy had six televisions."

Friends Danielle Leavitt and Becky Fisher, both 16 of Lacey Township in southern Ocean County, have made Black Friday shopping a tradition for the past three years.

"It's our tradition to go out in the middle of the night and go shopping, and we're getting better each year, getting better bargains," said Fisher, who bought two wristlets at the Coach Factory at The Walk for $18 and $22.

Throughout the day, shoppers hopped from store to store — sometimes leaving with a different product than what brought them in the first place.

Pleasantville resident Cherae White waited in line for two hours and bought a 46-inch television at Walmart. She intended to buy a larger TV, but it was sold out by the time she got inside, she said.

John Barlow, of Galloway Township, visited several retailers on Friday and waited in line at Kmart in Pleasantville for a discounted 24-inch television. He could not find the TV he was looking for, and eventually bought one elsewhere at regular price, he said.

For Rose Gibson, 63, the day was more of a diversion from the last three weeks than a shopping excursion.

Her home on North Texas Avenue in Atlantic City was destroyed in Hurricane Sandy, as were the family's clothes and belongings, she said.

She and her granddaughter, Danielle Primo, 18, have been staying at a FEMA-supplied room at a casino and checked out shops to replace clothes they lost.

But they really just wanted a chance to get out for a while.

"We're just looking around," Gibson said early Friday morning. "It was a bad Thanksgiving for us."

In Cape May, a Friday morning fog bank lifted and the sun appeared. So did the shoppers.

Business was brisk at the Washington Street Mall for the first time since Hurricane Sandy, which caused little damage there but has stifled business.

“It was excellent. I think it’s the first real sign of life since the hurricane. Today is good and, hopefully, the people are finding out we’re still open,” said Barry Tischler, who owns several stores on the mall with his wife, Sue.

Mall merchants have been seeing foot traffic more like January and have complained that national media accounts have said Sandy hurt the entire New Jersey shore. Last year, Hurricane Irene stifled late-season business even though it, too, missed Cape May.

Merchants hope to get another boost for today’s Small Business Saturday, a day dedicated to small independent local businesses.

Stone Harbor also kicked off its Christmas shopping season with a pet parade during the day and Hospitality Night in the business district on Friday night. The Stone Harbor Chamber of Commerce said a lot of people were in town, and shops were very busy. The town will hold its Christmas Parade tonight.

Staff writer Richard Degener contributed to this report.

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