Tempted by tantalizing discounts, hundreds of thousands of frugal shoppers came out of their shells on Black Friday to mob Tampa Bay malls and find discounts from midnight until dusk.
Whether the trend holds up, boosting discretionary spending over last year's dismal figures, remains the next critical measure of whether the recession is over and recovery is taking root.
Friday's showing is just the first step, a fact retailers know well. A good Black Friday a year ago was followed by one of the retail industry's worst holiday performances ever.
While figures on what shoppers spent won't be available for a few days, an abundance of signs showed more Tampa Bay shoppers were out on Friday, the traditional start to the Christmas holiday season.
More than 600 shoppers lined up outside a St. Petersburg Toys "R" Us for the chain's earliest ever opening at midnight. In minutes they snapped up all 100 hard-to-find Zhu Zhu electronic hamsters, but eight hours later checkout lines still snaked around the jammed store. At Prime Outlets at Ellenton, where Black Friday traffic typically backs up a half-mile on Interstate 75, shoppers were confronted with a 2-mile wait at 1 a.m.
"We've been crazy busy," said Gynnifer Burnett, district manager for 12 Old Navy stores in the bay area. "We had 200 people lined up at every store when we opened at 3 a.m."
"Both traffic and business were up in 11 malls we manage that we surveyed in late morning including International Plaza" in Tampa, said Karen MacDonald, spokeswoman for Taubman Centers Inc. "A lot of shoppers also are buying for themselves, which we did not see last year."
Retailers turned up the promotional volume, but veteran Black Friday bargain hunters proved to be a demanding crowd.
Bundled in a blanket and shivering in a 4 a.m. chill, Kimberly Grimes pondered if it had been worth spending all night in line to be among the first 100 holiday bargain hunters at Best Buy.
"The deal I'm getting on a camera is good, but I found a cheaper iPod touch at Amazon.com before we left home," said the Seminole mother of three who faced five hours of mall shopping with her family, some of whom were asleep in the car. "Right now, I'm just cold and tired."
Across the street at Sears, Kiwanis Baines, a Jamerson Elementary School teacher, didn't hesitate.
"I got a $56 jacket for $12," she said. "That's a good price."
"I bought pajamas for $3 at Walmart, but it took an hour wait to pay," said Jackie Leonard, a Largo day care worker.
"The deals are not as good as last year," said Heidi Greenslade, a Tampa schoolteacher who hit two malls, a Target and a Walmart before 9:30 a.m. "We're watching our money more this year, so 30 to 40 percent off for this early day isn't good enough."
With doorbuster deals good only a few hours or available only in limited quantities, more retailers than ever shifted the start of the day earlier into the wee hours. So mobs of shoppers were able to rove from one store to the next through the night, comparison shop, then cherry pick.
Confronted with forecasts of weak holiday spending, stores tried some new come-ons to get shoppers out and spending. Tilly's handed $10 to $150 gift cards to the first 75 shoppers for its 5 a.m. opening. Neiman Marcus offered a $50 gift card for a $100 purchase. Department stores that last year came up with the confusing "take another 25 percent off 70 percent off clearance" goods (which really translates to 83 percent off overall) this year changed the math to "take another "40 percent" off 70 percent.
Sears at Tyrone Square Mall sold out a $579 front loading Kenmore washer/dryer set to the people at the front of the line an hour before the store even opened at 4 a.m. Sears had only four on hand, routing deal hunters to Apsco Appliances, which had a similar set priced the same at $600 below list price.
"We have four times the TV sets on hand that were advertised in limited quantities, so we plan to keep the promotional sale momentum up through the weekend," Marcos Avellan, Sears store manager, said as people lined 10 deep at five registers and bought discounted sets.
Retailers this year are extending many deals through the weekend and adding new ones. They've also made an effort to stick to practical basics. Walmart had $2 to $10 DVDs, a 32-inch HDTV for $248 and a $78 Blu-Ray DVD player. Hundreds of toys were priced at $10 or less. Old Navy's "Gobblepalooza" sale was dominated by $5 T-shirts and $15 jeans.
The online shopping industry is heavily promoting Monday as Cyber Monday, which will likely be the third biggest online sales day of the year, thanks to discounts to stimulate what has been flat demand.
Mark Albright can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8252.