By  on November 28, 2005

PARAMUS, N.J. — Routes 4 and 17 in Paramus are two of the most abundant shopping stretches in the state with no less than five malls and hundreds of big-box stores and specialty shops. At the crossroads of 4 and 17 is Westfield Shoppingtown Garden State Plaza, the state's first regional shopping center and the dominant mall in the area. It was with a mixture of fear and trepidation that I approached this colossus of commercialism on the busiest shopping day of the year, Black Friday. Me and every other bargain hunter in Northern New Jersey.

The first indication of the crowds inside was the level of congestion in the parking lot. On a good day it can be difficult to find a space; some of the parking is so far-flung the mall employs shuttle buses. I proceeded directly to Neiman Marcus, where valet parking costs $10, $5 with a Neiman's charge card or receipt.

Neiman's wasn't especially busy but had gotten into the promotional spirit with markdowns on designers such as Dana Buchman and Missoni. And the promotions at other stores helped draw hordes to the mall. Outside Express, hundreds of people lined up waiting to receive a free clutch with purchase. One woman said she was on line for two hours. Macy's was also busy; the retailer was distributing $1 million worth of gift cards nationwide.

Garden State Plaza opened at 7 a.m., but 4,000 to 5,000 eager shoppers waited outside. The center's management took pity on the early birds and opened the doors, allowing them to warm up in the common areas while they waited for the stores to open. About 300 shoppers took their places outside of Best Buy, which had advertised specials.

At the California Pizza Kitchen, shoppers were told there was a 50-minute to 1 hour wait. Across the way at J.C. Penney there were long lines at the registers — a seldom seen sight — as shoppers bought discounted children's clothes and prepackaged gifts.

Despite all the added traffic, employees in the Nordstrom children's shoe department maintained their composure as parents yelled out sizes and kids ran around the displays. "Monsters Inc." was playing on a monitor where more than one tired little shopper had plopped down.Lisa Herman, a mall spokeswoman, said about 100,000 people were expected to visit Garden State Plaza on Black Friday, about 2 to 3 percent more than last year.

Retailers have come to view Black Friday as an event and have developed it into a competitive sport with limited supplies of advertised door busters. Department stores advertised items such as cashmere sweaters and coats. Donald Soares, a principal of Capgemini, a Chicago-based consulting company, said consumers are confident right now because gas prices have more or less stabilized at the pump. "There's a lot of talk about the housing bubble bursting, but housing has actually appreciated. Natural gas costs are expected to rise nearly 60 percent in the Midwest. When the heating bills come in in late December, consumers will be pretty disappointed."

Judging by the traffic at Garden State Plaza, consumers are still optimistic. At noon, the parking lot at the mall, which is also anchored by a Lord & Taylor, was full, and the valet attendants outside Nordstrom were turning cars away. In January, the center will breaking ground on a new expansion, which will add 30,000 square feet of retail space, a movie theater with stadium seating and several hundred parking spaces.

"This is my first Black Friday," said Valory Bardinas. "There are good sales but the parking situation is bad. I was two seconds away from road rage."

Jen Puglisi was feeling good about her expedition to Garden State Plaza. "I started at nine," she said. "The mall is too packed but I got deals and that's always a good time. I'm going to be spending more this year."

Lisa Esposito was running out of patience. "The lines are horrible," she said. "I can't even get into the stores. We want to buy a lot more. The prices are incredible."

One of the least stressed out shoppers on Friday was Lisa Speciale, the winner of a Westfield Garden State Plaza essay contest. Speciale, who wrote that she's a living Garden State Plaza directory because she knows where every store is, was whisked to the center by limo at 7 a.m. "I love this mall, it's the only place I shop," she said. While others fought for parking spaces and dressing rooms, Speciale and her personal shopping concierge had entre everywhere. Speciale shopped for herself, had lunch at the Rotunda at Neiman's, shopped some more and had a massage, leaving for home no worse for the wear.

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