SPRING HILL — In the wee hours of Black Friday, one would never know there was a recession.
Shivering shoppers camped outside many of their favorite stores between 3 and 4 a.m., from Old Navy to Office Depot.
Bargain hunters wrapped neatly around HHGregg in the Coastal Landing Shopping Center, clutching their wish lists, newspaper inserts and, for a lucky few, coffee brought from Dunkin' Donuts by a shopping buddy.
"I do this every year," said Frank Zuilkowski, wrapped in a light blue blanket as he waited to score a couple of bargain-priced TVs and a camera. "It's the only way to save money."
HHGregg, a relative newcomer to Hernando County, took over the empty Circuit City space earlier this year.
On Friday, the company was taking no chances on naughty shopper behavior. Staffers handed out "golden tickets" to guarantee items for shoppers, and to discourage running or stampeding when the doors opened.
"We're going to be extremely nice to you; please be nice to us," general manager Josh Parker told the crowd. "We have 45 people in the building to take care of everyone."
Cathy Miller had waited outside HHGregg with her husband and two sons since 7:50 p.m. the night before. They were first in line.
"We always say never again, and then next year we do it again," said Miller.
At 4 a.m., the doors at HHGregg were about to open. Parker said 250 people would be allowed inside.
"This isn't a mad dash," he said. "Stay safe. Make it home to your families."
Individuals in the crowd joked with one another about shoppers gone mad, but the tone amongst the group was genteel.
Inside, a cadre of pressed, bright-eyed sales associates greeted customers. By 4:04 a.m., the first group had paid and was happily on their way to other stores.
By 4:15, the long line outside had become a series of long lines inside. The neatly stacked pyramid of compact DVD players quickly shrank as bargain hunters grabbed the $9.97 deal. The Garmin nuvi Portable GPS also flew off the shelves at $69.97.
Shoppers waited for up to 45 minutes to check out. Sales associates hovered, asked questions and even made small talk.
Parker said this was part of the plan.
"Folks need to see a smiling face," he said. "They've been waiting a long time."
The organization at HHGregg was no accident. Parker took a trip to the corporate office in Indianapolis a few weeks ago, where managers devised methods to get shoppers what they want in the most efficient way possible.
Kristin Quartararo and Jason Portano used the Thanksgiving ad inserts from the newspaper to help plan their day.
They were seeking a TV and DVD player, and decided to start at HHGregg. Afterward, they went to Walmart for advertised deals on DVDs, but left without purchasing anything.
"The lines were so long," said Portano. "It was crazy."
Both Chick-fil-A and Starbucks opened earlier Friday morning to meet customer demand.
"We're here to serve," said Chick-fil-A manager Bill Abitz, whose restaurant handed out free coffee to warm up cold shoppers while they waited outside.
Some couples strategized by cell phone.
Glenn Allen was standing outside HHGregg, and his wife was waiting at Walmart, where he would meet her next, as they talked. They were well experienced at snagging Black Friday bargains.
"It's a tradition," he said. "There's something sickeningly fun about it."
As store openings have crept earlier and earlier, shoppers have continued to come out, even braving the cold. For many, the tradition of bargain shopping goes hand-in-hand with Thanksgiving turkey.
"You think turkey, you think Black Friday," Allen said. "Eat the turkey, it puts you to sleep. You wake up, you shop."
Shary Lyssy Marshall can be reached at [email protected]