KENNETH CITY — The fluorescent-red glow from Tampa Bay's last Kmart lit up the empty sidewalk.
For a half-hour, the only car-door slams came from store workers before they sleepily dragged their feet across the parking lot and knocked on the sliding glass door. On the other side, Kmart employees busied themselves hanging sale signs and putting out free coffee and doughnuts. A standup sign outside waited to welcome shoppers: "BLACK FRIDAY NOW."
At 5:55 a.m on Thanksgiving morning, the store's first sale-seekers gathered outside.
"We're the crazy ones," said Amber McLachlan, laughing as she leaned against a shopping cart.
Moments later, store manager John McDonald opened the doors, handed out sale fliers and greeted the group of seven as it grew by another dozen. The store opened at 6 a.m..
Early-morning Thanksgiving openings aren't common. But then neither are Kmarts as common as they once were.
The number has dramatically dwindled over the last two decades. The Kmart on 66th Street N, sandwiched between St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park, is one of 15 surviving Florida stores. At the chain’s peak, there were more than 150 Kmarts in the state. The Kenneth City store is the last in Tampa's surrounding metro area, the closest others are across the Sunshine Skyway bridge in Bradenton and near the outlets at Ellenton.
Sears Holdings, the parent company of Kmart and Sears, said it would be closing another 142 stores last month, while it tries to negotiate its way through court and emerge from bankruptcy. It may sell off 400 of its most profitable stores. There are 687 currently open — down from 2,000 in 2013. The only Sears stores left in the Tampa Bay area are in Tampa, Brandon, New Port Richey and Brooksville.
The success of the company getting out of bankruptcy at all could depend on how well the stores do over the next two months.
It all starts with Black Friday, which is really Black Thursday. Or Black November if you're shopping online, where Amazon began some of its deals on Nov. 1. Most retailers, even Sears, opt to open after dinnertime on Thanksgiving and then close overnight to reopen early Friday morning.
So, what's Black Friday like at one of America's oldest, and most struggling, retailers?
"We have a lot of regulars," manager McDonald said. "And a lot of people, it's their tradition to go shopping."
So, early on Thanksgiving, shoppers puttered through aisles, eyeing $15 artificial Christmas trees and $2.49 fleece blankets. There was no pushing and shoving. No one racing toward the electronics department.
McLachlan looked around the bedding aisles trying to find $9.99 sheet sets as she flipped through the ad.
"They were a dollar cheaper last year," she said while browsing. "They're the same at Walmart, too."
Lawanda McCarter, 53, answered back: "I think everything went up a little."
The women were strangers but helped each other pick through the sheets to find what they wanted.
McCarter wound up with three of the high-thread-count sets, half-off at $24.99. She counts on Black Friday deals to stay within her holiday shopping budget. After all, she has three grandchildren to spoil.
After the sheets came board games and then Barbie dolls for $4.99. She planned to go to Target later that evening, too.
"I miss when it was all just early in the morning Friday," McCarter said. "I don't like disrupting dinner, but I like to save."
In total, the National Retail Federation estimates more than 164 million people will shop this weekend. About 116 million of those people, it said, shop on Black Friday.
"Last year was an incredible holiday shopping season," said Stephanie Cegielski, a spokeswoman for the International Council of Shopping Centers. "It's a trend of positiveness, but also a trend that people still want to go out and shop and still do have confidence in the economy."
Cegielski's group estimates the average shopper will spend nearly $550 over the weekend.
But will enough of those dollars go to Kmart and Sears?
A Sears Holdings attorney said in court last week that the coming weeks would be "critical for the company's ability to reorganize."
In Kenneth City, McDonald stared into McCarter's cart before she checked out and made sure she understood the points promotion that would allow her to get $50 for free to spend at the store if she came back on Monday.
"I'll definitely be back," she told him.
Soon, McDonald was calling to a colleague to help with online orders. His Kmart is one of seven "cheetah" stores that sends employees to the floor to grab merchandise ordered online and ship it out.
"We do good with that," he said. "And it's part of the reason business has been better here than other stores."
Before it hit 7 a.m. Thanksgiving morning, there were already 200 online orders waiting.
Contact Sara DiNatale at [email protected] Follow @sara_dinatale.