Thursday, December 14, 2017

Black Friday arrives early for many local shoppers

Black Friday came early this year with the opening of many stores at midnight, creating a more subdued shopping experience in the morning.

Most of the major retailers had lines before their doors opened, but there was none of the chaos associated with traditional Black Friday holiday shopping rush.

"We've been steady and great. Nothing negative,'' said Chris Bechtel, manager of the Old Navy at WestShore Plaza. "Everyone has been calm, cool and collected.''

The store opened from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday then reopened at midnight. Like Walmart and other big Black Friday retailers, it offered door buster deals in waves to avoid some of the frenzy of previous years and to spread out the bargains for customers.

Shoppers such as Leslie Skrodski and her daughters Taylor and Laura cheered the earlier start. By 5 a.m. when they headed out to Macy's at WestShore Plaza, most of the crowds had left.

"We got a spot right out front and all of the big specials were still available,'' said Laura Skrodski, 27. "I was kind of glad I got to sleep in.''

Carole Kalman, manager of Next Step shoe store at WestShore, decided last-minute to open at midnight but doesn't think she'll do it again unless required to. Longer hours just dilute sales and shorten people's holiday, she said. People only have so much money to spend.

"I prefer the sanctity of Thanksgiving,'' she said. "Was it worth it? I think the same people would have come back in the morning. I don't think it was any big win.''

An estimated 147 million shoppers will hit the stores this three-day holiday weekend, according the National Retail Federation. That's down slightly from last year's estimate, largely because the numbers did not include the Thursday traffic.

Overall, retail sales are expected to increase an estimated 4.1 percent this holiday season to $586.1 billion. In Florida, that figure could be closer to 5 percent, thanks to the strong tourism base.

Jay Richmond, manager of the Brookstone store at WestShore, said he will likely exceed sales forecasts. Tablets, app-controlled toys and other new merchandise are drawing people to the stores.

"Shoppers are feeling a little brighter,'' he said. "I think 5 percent is modest.''

Much to his delight, several people were in line when the store opened at 6 a.m. Friday. The store generates up to half of its annual sales during the holiday shopping season, slightly more than the average retailer, because of its focus on unique gadget gifts. Among the most popular: Bluetooth keyboards, wine aerators and wireless outdoor speakers.

Several stores pushed up their openings to Thanksgiving night to extend the busy shopping weekend and accommodate people who don't like to get up early. Toys "R" Us and Sears opened at 8 p.m., followed by Target at 9. Walmart launched deals at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Thursday and 5 a.m. Friday.

Even the malls got the party started early. Tyrone Square Mall and the three area Westfield malls — Citrus Park, Countryside and Brandon — opened at midnight Friday.

Countryside had lines outside Macy's, Victoria's Secret and GameStop, and also at smaller businesses such as Great American Cookies and New York & Company. The Disney store reached capacity soon after midnight, forcing dozens of people to stand in line outside the door.

Janet Hilder, 38, of Dunedin came with a single mission: buy a $5 snowman from the Build-A-Bear workshop.

"I'm going against everything I stand for by being here,'' she said. "I've never done Black Friday before. This is crazy.''

But she didn't regret it. The snowmen sold out in 15 minutes.

Many shoppers said they preferred the midnight openings over getting up early. Although parking was scarce at places like Walmart and Best Buy, it was available at the malls.

In past years, Mike Iacovino, 43, would set up an air mattress outside the stores until they opened several hours later. With a midnight start, he was able to eat dinner, rest a bit, then head out to the stores.

"This is better than staying up all night,'' he said outside Dick's Sporting Goods in Clearwater, waiting to buy advertised golf balls and ammunition.

Travis and Brenda Smart came to Dick's shortly before midnight after hitting Walmart and Kmart — twice — for discounted clothing and DVDs.

"This is the only time of year I voluntarily go shopping,'' said Travis Smart, 26.

Lauren Clark, marketing director at Countryside, said Black Friday traffic would be up about 20 percent compared to last year because of the midnight start. More than 100,000 people were expected through the doors, more than half of them by mid-morning.

"We saw a lot of lines and everybody had multiple bags,'' she said. "I think the midnight opening was a great thing for our retailers.''

Despite complaints that early starts infringed on people's Thanksgiving, some employees remained upbeat about the nontraditional hours. Alyssa Neikirk, a sales associate at Atomic Tattoo at Countryside, said she and other employees were excited about working the graveyard shift and seeing the Black Friday crowds.

"We thought it could bring in more business,'' she said. Within 15 minutes of opening, someone was filling out paperwork to get a tattoo.

Shoppers, some in their pajamas, came looking for sales.

Ruth Harrower of Redington Beach scored deals at Tyrone Square Mall, including a pair of slippers for $8 and a tote bag filled with Bath and Body Works products.

"I started at the other end of the mall and have been shopping my way up to this end," Harrower said.

She started shopping at 4 a.m. Friday and also planned to visit Bed, Bath & Beyond, Office Depot, Home Depot and CVS.

William Berger said he had spent about $225 on items, including a shirt, vest, boots for his daughter and several outfits for his son.

At the Best Buy on 22nd Avenue N, the lines had subsided by 8 a.m. James Bumgardner of Treasure Island walked out with two 24-inch TVs.

Bumgardner said Black Friday shopping appeared calmer this year. Last year, he got to the stores at midnight. This year, he waited until 6 a.m.

"A little bit more relaxed," he said. "We waited. . . . We kind of let the crowds beat us."

Terry Hale, 32, was scouting for a new laptop at Walmart and Best Buy on Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa about 8 a.m. Friday. She said she wasn't worried about missing any sales and didn't understand the crowds who packed stores in the wee hours of the morning.

"There's no need for all that madness," she said.

Hale figured if she got the computer as advertised it would save her a few hundred dollars.

"If we get a good deal, we'll take it," she said. "Otherwise, oh well."

Times staff writer Marissa Lang contributed to this report. Susan Thurston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110.

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