Black Friday arrived early for holiday shoppers looking for deals on Thanksgiving. But was it too early?
Georgia Hence of Dunedin said she was shocked to see only a few people in line when she arrived at the Clearwater Toys "R" Us two hours before it opened at 5 p.m.
"I've never seen it like this,'' she said. "There's no one here, which I guess is good for me.''
Hence has been shopping Black Friday deals for years and preferred it when stores opened at midnight. That way, people could finish their meals, then head out to stores after their children went to bed.
"This is too early. It interferes with Thanksgiving,'' she said. "My husband asked me, 'Why are we eating dinner at 1 p.m.?' I said, 'Well, it's because I have to be in line by 3 p.m.' ''
Shoppers used to hitting the stores on Friday went on Thursday to take advantage of deep discounts on everything from toys to electronics and apparel. While many stores had lines of people waiting for doors to open, many shoppers said the earlier opening times seemed to have diluted traditional Black Friday crowds.
"There were a lot more people last year,'' said Kimberly Halloran as she waited for the Target along Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard in Clearwater to open at 8 p.m. "I guess everyone wants to be with their families.''
Last year, the line wrapped around the shopping center. This year, it was about 250 people deep at 6:30 p.m.
Many major retailers pushed up their openings to Thursday to get a jump on the holiday season and accommodate shoppers who'd rather shop in the evening than get up at dawn. The late Thanksgiving added to the urgency, giving retailers only 26 shopping days before Christmas to lure customers to their stores.
The busiest retailers seemed to be Walmart, which never closes, and Best Buy, both Black Friday mainstays. Shoppers circled the Walmart on Coachman Road, searching in vain for parking at 6 p.m., when the first wave of sales hit. Customers grabbed at pillows for $4.88, Harry Potter DVDs for $1.96 and nonstick griddles for $9.44.
Danielle Eger and her boyfriend, Dave McDowell, got to the store at 3 p.m. to stand in line for the 32-inch TV on sale for $98. The store had 180 of them in stock, but handed out vouchers when it ran out so people could buy the item and have it delivered to the store before Christmas.
"I knew it would be crowded, but it's a good deal,'' she said, adding that she appreciated being able to wait inside the store rather than outside in the cold.
Veteran Black Friday shoppers like Jaime Hegeman, 36, credited the shorter lines to retailers launching Black Friday deals online at 12:01 a.m. The mother of two bought almost all of her gifts online from the comfort of her home in Palm Harbor, without having to fight crowds or bundle up. In many cases, she got free shipping.
"I'm only here because I couldn't find a few things I wanted online,'' she said as she waited outside the Toys "R" Us.
An estimated 140 million people were expected to shop during the four-day Thanksgiving weekend, according to a survey done for the National Retail Federation. That includes 33 million on Thanksgiving and 97 million on Black Friday.
Tealer Young of Clearwater set out just after midnight Wednesday to get a good spot in line at Kmart, which opened at 6 a.m. But when no one else was there, she napped in her car until 4, when she started seeing headlights in the parking lot.
Gina Holbrook said the earlier hours took away some of the fun.
"The excitement is not there,'' she said. "I would rather start later because your dinner is done, you're done talking to people and you're getting tired of your children.''
Then she laughed and walked inside to buy a Disney Infinity set and some Legos for her 9-year-old son.