Black Friday shoppers descend on Manatee County stores; with PHOTO GALLERY

Herald Staff WritersNovember 23, 2012 

— The busiest shopping day on the calendar dawned early this year as more stores opened on Thanksgiving and midnight to crowds of eager Black Friday shoppers across Manatee.

Some were on a hunt for deals in electronics that only come around once a year. For others, it was about securing the right Christmas gifts for friends and family.

The event, which can make or break fourth-quarter sales for retailers, mostly outpaced the numbers registered the past few years — a sign the recession has loosened its grip on the holidays, store operators agreed.

Thousands of discount-hungry consumers lined around the big-box retailers along University Park in search of door-busters in the early hours of the morning Friday.

But by the time the sun began peaking though, those once-robust crowds had already subdued. At the Walmart on University and Lockwood Ridge in South Manatee, an Emerson 50-inch high-definition TV priced for about $300 was the hot ticket item.

Sarasota resident Alex Alfaro was 10th in line for the door-buster at 2 a.m. By that time, he had already been to Best Buy.

“It was worth it,” Alfaro said as he loaded the new TV into his car. “The crowds weren’t bad, and there’s some really good deals.”

As the big sales surrounding Black Friday crept earlier into Thanksgiving this year, the lines stretched their longest around 11 p.m. Thursday.

Stores from Walmart to Target and Toys R Us opened late Thursday — each with a sizable gathering of consumers at their Bradenton area locations.

Many stores had already run out of their advertised specials by 4 a.m. Friday — a time that once signaled the kick off to the Black Friday bonanza.

At Kohl’s on University Park, a steady stream of shoppers were strolling though isles at about 5 a.m. Palm Aire resident Pam Machaj had already been to three stores when she stopped at Kohl’s to buy some linens and clothes. She hadn’t been Black Friday-shopping in a decade.

“I was surprised by how nice everyone was,” she said. “Now I’m going to go home and take a nap.” Home Depot was the busiest store along University’s retail hub early Friday, with workers serving coffee and donuts to residents lined up for the 5 a.m. opening.

Ellenton resident Scott Tolar said he always makes the renovation superstore his first Black Friday stop.

One big deal Friday at Home Depot was a $59 Christmas tree. The stock of nearly 60 sold out in 19 minutes.

“It’s the best place to come as far as I’m concerned,” said Tolar, who was buying tools, a ladder and some holiday decorations. “Depending on how much money I have left, I’ll go to the other stores later to shop for other people.”

Thousands of residents stood in line at the University Park Best Buy for the store’s much-hyped midnight opening. Some even camped out there for days.

But not University Park resident Dale Polokins, who arrived at 5:30 a.m. to buy a 39-inch Samsung TV after the lines had eased.

“I woke up at midnight, rolled over and went back to bed,” he said. “I was out here by 5 a.m. It was great.”

In Ellenton, the cold weather didn’t deter shoppers from prowling through discount racks and shelves at the outdoor Premium Outlet Mall.

Most arrived in sweatsuits and jackets with hot coffee in hand, ready to take advantage of the after-Thanksgiving sales.

Among the group of early-morning shoppers were Ricardo and Ceci Pinetta, who arrived at 1 a.m. The Pinettas are vacationing from Central America and looking to buy Christmas gifts for their children Marcella, 3, and Matias, 1, along for the shopping in strollers.

“We had to go while they were sleeping,” said Ricardo Pinetta. “They have no idea we are here.” The mall officially opened at midnight, although some vendors, like the newly renovated Coach store, opened at 9 p.m. Thursday.

“We had a lot of shoppers on the property,” said Sarah Ozgun, Ellenton Premium Outlet assistant general manger. “We are cautiously optimistic about the holiday season.”

Friday marked the mall’s seventh annual midnight madness sale.

“Our merchants plan weeks and months in advance,” Ozgun said. “They plan for the weekend and make sure they have enough inventory.”

DeSoto Square also opened its doors at midnight for Black Friday this year, where mall workers were greeted by hundreds of customers who had formed a line that wrapped all of the way back to the movie theater.

Mall management at the customer relations kiosk gave out 500 Black Friday survival kits — stuffed with coupons, extra savings and free gift cards — within the first hour of opening.

“It was very surprising to open the mall at midnight and see the traffic we had,” said Ashley Nelms, manager of the Zales Jewelers at DeSoto Square. “This is a whole new thing for us. It was exciting.” Most of the mall traffic quieted down by the early morning, except for JC Penney, which opened at 6 a.m.

Lines wrapped around each of the store’s checkout areas, with consumers holding armsfull of clothes, perfume and jewelry.

Store officials said early Black Friday revenues were up over the previous few years, fanned largely by an interior remodeling finished earlier this year.

“We have had good traffic,” JC Penney manager Greg Sapp said. “It’s definitely a stronger crowd than we had last year.”

— Tweet about your Black Friday with #BradentonBlackFriday

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