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Crowds only nibble at Thursday shopping in bay area

Shopping sisters Eva Wingo, left, and Pat Garcia search for gifts for family members at the Old Navy inside WestShore Plaza in Tampa on Thursday morning. Crowds were small.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Shopping sisters Eva Wingo, left, and Pat Garcia search for gifts for family members at the Old Navy inside WestShore Plaza in Tampa on Thursday morning. Crowds were small.

Holiday rituals like turkey and stuffing and the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade appeared safe after a challenge Thursday by some merchants who tried to get a head start on Black Friday.

Sears, Kmart, Toys "R" Us, Old Navy, Walmart, Big Lots, Sports Authority and a third of the stores at Ellenton Premium Outlets were open. Crowds were steady, but they didn't approach the numbers expected today.

"Nobody's here," said Steven Roth, who browsed with his two sons at Tampa's WestShore Plaza mall's Old Navy store about 6 p.m. "That's good."

The parking lot outside Sears and Old Navy at the Tyrone Square Mall was so empty at 8 a.m. that Lee York and her 16-year-old daughter, Alisa, had time to linger outside.

"I think everyone is waiting for tomorrow to see better deals," said Lee York, 40. They didn't buy anything at Sears, but walked out later after spending $50 on Old Navy sweaters.

Tyrone store employees seemed to outnumber customers at times. At 6:30 a.m., Sears store manager Marcos Avellan said he and his staff were worried because they didn't see many people outside.

Minutes before 7 a.m., the crowd swelled to about 75. By 9 a.m., a few hundred had passed through. Most of them ran for electronics, Avellan said.

Patty Longhouse and her daughter, Courtney, arrived 20 minutes before the 9 a.m. sale at Tyrone Square Mall's Old Navy. She stood outside the doors of the store with about two dozen other shoppers lured by 40 percent to 60 percent off sales.

"I definitely thought there would be more people here," said Longhouse, 49.

For most Americans, Thursday seemed like any other Thanksgiving. Millions watched the live broadcast of the Macy's parade. Parades in Detroit, Chicago and Philadelphia drew thousands. About 16,000 runners and walkers attended the 32nd annual Times Turkey Trot in Clearwater.

But with a weak economy, many stores were counting on big Thursday crowds to usher in what they hope will be a robust holiday shopping season.

Toys "R" Us CEO Jerry Storch said the company decided to open at 10 p.m. Thanksgiving Day because reaction was so positive to the midnight opening last year. Before that, stores had opened at 5 a.m. on Friday. He expects brisk sales of hot toys like Santa ma-jig, a green and red singing doll.

It appears the later timing paid off for the toy merchant, because the Tyrone outlet was mobbed. By 10 p.m. a line stretched around the store, and a security guard said the crowd had begun to gather at 6 p.m.

A similar promotional blitz greeted online shoppers Thursday, although the holiday isn't a bonanza there, either.

Last year, consumers spent about $300 million online on Thanksgiving, compared with $887 million on Cyber Monday, according to comScore. Cyber Monday is the fledgling custom of having online sales on the Monday after Black Friday.

Not everyone welcomes the creep of commercialism into such a revered holiday, one rich with sentiment and ritual, dating to the Pilgrims and proclaimed a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln.

"Why do they call it 'Black Friday?' " asked Milton Roman, a 50-year-old security guard who was shopping for a DVD at the N Dale Mabry Walmart in Tampa. "It lasts a week now. It's not for me. You stand outside those doors, waiting for them to open, and you'll get trampled."

Roman scoffed at the line of tents outside the Best Buy, which opened today at 5 a.m.

"That's madness," he said, shaking his head and laughing.

But for Melissa Fitzwater, 27, a Geico representative from Brandon, the savings are too good to ignore. She and her family camped outside Best Buy beginning Tuesday. They were second in line, eager for bargain laptops, GPS systems and video games.

"I save thousands," she said.

It's the sixth year she has done this, and she's a pro. Her husband was camping outside Target across N Dale Mabry. Her mother-in-law was going to stop by later with a Thanksgiving Day dinner of turkey, mashed potatoes and green beans.

"Best Buy is really organized," Fitzwater said. "They line us up single-file and give us tickets. But there's still cussing and screaming when the store's opened. It's not like Walmart, though. That's a free-for-all."

Farther down the line, 38-year-old Ricky Cordero of Gibsonton and Ray Solomon, 28, of Temple Terrace played cards underneath another tent. They may have had a Thanksgiving dinner at Denny's, but they were ready to buy loads of electronic gadgets. Solomon was planning to save $150 on a GPS system.

"A lot of this is driven by the economy," Solomon said. "I think what we do helps it."

It'll be weeks before merchants will be able to evaluate the success of the next couple of days. But for now, shoppers like Aniello Zito were hunting for deals they could afford.

A regular at Tyrone Square Mall, where he plays the Lotto, Zito investigated the Old Navy sale. He walked out after only five minutes, unimpressed with the reduced prices.

"It's all a gimmick," he said.

He was waiting for a Pep Boys Auto Parts sale today: a 2-ton floor jack for $10. "Now that's a good price," Zito said.

Information from Times wires was used in this report.

Crowds only nibble at Thursday shopping in bay area 11/25/10 [Last modified: Thursday, November 25, 2010 11:47pm]
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