Lured by tantalizing deals, mobs of Tampa Bay shoppers spent the day — and most of the wee hours of the morning — roving from store to store in one of retailers' most aggressive Black Friday launches in years.
Trying to coax consumers out of their post-recession shells, retailers opened earlier than ever, promoted one-time deals heavily and watched customers engage in some odd behavior to save a few bucks.
At Kohl's in Seminole, tempers flared when line jumpers tried to slip in among 300 waiting to get in at 3 a.m. A passing sheriff's cruiser silenced the dispute. At JCPenney in St. Petersburg, two women got into a tug-of-war at 4 a.m. over $110 boots offered at $29.95. About a dozen anti-fur protesters staged their annual picket at Saks Fifth Avenue in Tampa, brandishing graphic placards that warned, "Your fur once had a face."
At Best Buy in St. Petersburg, Lorie Davenport and shopping buddy Tina Thain capped their families' nine-day vigil camped in a tent by the door. Best Buy gave them both a free iPad for being first in line among 1,000 stores nationally, and then they went on a shopping spree where they snapped up a computer router, Blu-ray DVDs, iTunes gift cards, a TV sound system and other goodies. Davenport spent about $500.
"This was about continuing a family tradition more than about the money," Davenport said. "I had a blast. I'll be back next year."
Thanks to a slow economic recovery, the National Retail Federation is hoping for a tepid 2.3 percent gain in holiday sales during November and December this year compared to last year.
Actual sales estimates won't be released until next week, but the average household budget for the holidays this year is $689, up only $7 from last year, according to Big Research. With consumer spending making up two-thirds of the gross domestic product and one of the last sectors to recover from recessions, holiday spending is an important barometer of what so far has been an anemic economic recovery. While cool weather helps retailers in places such as Florida, snow and rain that hit several parts of the country Friday may put a lid on Black Friday sales overall.
So retailers, who as an industry have not built their inventory up much beyond last year's level, this time want to be first to land the sale rather than cede it to a rival. Stores turned up the volume Friday with planned deep discounts rather than risk losing profits by waiting until later in the season if demand falters. Most sales Friday lasted several hours. Many offered limited quantities.
"These were good deals, much better than last year," said Brenda Brown of Holiday, who works as a marketing coordinator.
"To me, anything 50 percent off is a good deal, and today I saw a lot of it," said Sarah Barry, a Tampa educator who hit Westfield Citrus Park mall at 5 a.m. for her annual shopping ritual with fellow West Chase Elementary teacher Valerie Romero. "My best deal was 50 percent off a 30 percent price reduction on Ralph Lauren at Dillard's," Romero said. "I bought a ton of Polo."
As far as the rest of the season, however, the jury remains out. Friday's crowds thinned out as soon as the deals ended.
"We're off to a great start," said Dave Hibbard, manager of Westfield Countryside mall, which counted 20,000 people through its doors before 9 a.m., enough to stick with expectations for a full day crowd of 70,000.
With consumers tightfisted, retailers elbowed each other by opening earlier than ever.
"This year the Black Friday strategy is, 'This is war,' " said Dana Telsey of Telsey Advisory Group, a New York investment firm that specializes in retailing.
Home Depot, moving to shore up its rank as the third-biggest seller of holiday decorations behind Walmart and Target, filled its patio department with Christmas yard displays and LED light kits while the garden department overflowed with 99-cent poinsettias.
Old Navy closed only two hours to clean up on Thanksgiving night before reopening at midnight. That was long enough for 1,000 shoppers to gather at the door in WestShore Plaza.
Toy stores get half of their annual sales during the last two months of the year. So Toys "R" Us, locked in a battle with Walmart and Target for toy supremacy, opened at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving, two hours before Walmart offered its toy doorbuster prices. As a result, many Toys "R" Us stores opened with lines 1,000-people deep waiting to get in.
"We're pretty thrilled about what we've seen online and are hearing from our stores," said Greg Ahearn, senior vice president of marketing and e-commerce for the chain.
While many more retailers tried to edge ahead of rivals by opening on Thanksgiving day, the big crowds waited until midnight or later when the deeper discounts and other come-ons were advertised.
Indeed, at Tyrone Square Mall, Tilly's handed out $10 to $100 gift cards to the first 200 in the door at 4 a.m. Aeropostale gave away free bottles of fragrance to the first 100, and Pac Sun passed out coupons for an extra 20 to 40 percent off to early birds.
"I'm not normally a 3 a.m. shopper, but the prices are better this time, so here we are," said Paula Martin, recently retired from Verizon and wheeling a filled cart at the St. Petersburg Toys "R" Us. "We're trying to cut back on holiday spending, but not for the grandkids. By the time it's all over, we'll probably have spent the same as we did last year."
Mark Albright can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8252.