The crowds appeared thinner than in past years, but shoppers were eager to spend as they hit the stores for Black Friday.
Tampa Bay area retailers reported smaller morning crowds, thanks in large part to many stores opening earlier than ever on Thanksgiving. Many customers also had shopped online deals early, eliminating the need to rush to stores when the doors opened.
"It's different this year, more spread out," said Mick Carpenter, a sales manager at Best Buy in Tampa. "It seemed like it was an easier process than cramming everything into a few hours."
Best Buy opened at 6 p.m. Thursday — six hours earlier than it did last year — and stayed open through Friday night. For many retailers that opened on Thanksgiving, stores were packed until about 1 a.m., and then the crowds died down in the middle of the night. The stores got busy again Friday afternoon.
Getting a break overnight helped the staff recharge and tidy up the store, Carpenter said. The store did about $500,000 in sales during the first 12-hours, which was on target with expectations. Surprisingly, it didn't run out of the popular Xbox One game system until about dawn Friday.
Major retailers nationwide pushed store openings earlier this year to extend the window for Black Friday shopping and avoid some of the frustration and chaos seen in past years.
Several shoppers said Friday that they stayed away from stores on Thanksgiving night but shopped online for the same deals.
"I got a camera for $300 off at BestBuy.com,'' said Casey Carver, 27, of Lutz, who was amazed by the small crowds at the store Friday morning.
Officials at WestShore Plaza in Tampa said retailers that opened at 8 p.m. Thursday were pleased with the traffic and their sales. Macy's, JCPenney, Sears and Old Navy had lines, but they didn't form until right before doors opened. Many stores offered 50 percent off all merchandise Friday morning.
Macy's chief executive officer Terry Lundren said Friday morning that the holiday season was "so far, so good.'' Macy's announced in mid-October that it was opening stores at 8 p.m., breaking a 155-year tradition of being closed on Thanksgiving.
"There were more customers this year than last year," he said, adding that it remains to be seen whether that pace will continue.
Macy's spokeswoman Melissa Goff said the earlier opening didn't discourage crowds.
"This is what our customers wanted," she said, adding that the event drew more families than in the past, when the stores opened at midnight.
Overall, consumers are expected to spend $602.1 billion during the holiday shopping season, up 3.9 percent over last year, according to the National Retail Federation. That's higher than last year's growth but lower than in the years before the recession.
Rob Sansome, 68, of Lakeland said he plans to spend more money than he did last year, mostly because he's buying big-ticket items, including a TV and a tablet. He went to International Plaza on Friday morning to check out the sales.
"We're not seeing anything special in terms of price,'' he said. "It will be interesting what the final numbers show. It seems stores are moving the shopping up a little earlier, but there's only so much money to spend.''
Stores won't issue a report card for the holiday season until well into next year. But Matthew Shay, president and chief executive officer of the National Retail Federation, said early reports from retailers on Friday were positive.
It "looks like the early opening of stores on Thanksgiving and the traditional start of holiday shopping on Black Friday is breaking new records, including what companies are seeing through their digital channels," he said in a news release.
For many shoppers who stayed out of stores on Thanksgiving, Friday translated to a more pleasant experience. Shorter checkout lines. Plenty of sale merchandise on the shelves. No shortage of employees.
"I haven't seen a day when I'm smiling coming out of Walmart, and I'm not stressed out," said Donna Conway of St. Petersburg as she left the Pinellas Park store.
"There's nobody there, except in electronics," she said. "I got a tablet for $49, less than online. They're $59 online."
Target's top executive, Gregg Steinhafel, said the combination of guests shopping online, through mobile devices and in stores led to unprecedented numbers. Traffic that started on Thanksgiving was a good springboard to Cyber Monday and a new round of online deals.
At the Shoppes at Park Place Target, Kimberly Chancey, 35, of Pinellas Park was thrilled to find digital cameras in stock for $99.
"Actually, we didn't think they would have them anymore because they opened at 8 last night," her mother, Kathy Chancey, said. "We were just shocked that the parking lot wasn't crowded. Not like last year."
Times staff writer Lisa Buie contributed to this report. Susan Thurston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110.