MANATEE -- 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 to shine, 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."
And Black Friday shoppers were still plying their craft Friday afternoon at stores all over Manatee County.
At the Walmart Superstore on State Road 64, Ashley McGee, 20, and Cameron Hemmingway, 20, both
of Bradenton, got nearly all of their Christmas shopping done with one gigantic blast that cost them $1,390.
"We love Walmart," said McGee who actually came to the store at 7 p.m. Thursday and shopped till 11 p.m., only to find out that her American Express card wouldn't immediately approve the large purchase.
"I called the credit card company Friday morning and got it straightened out, and we ended up finding all the items except for a toolbox that we had found Thursday night and couldn't buy," McGee said.
Included in their haul was a Black Friday 40-inch Vizio Smart HDTV for $648, which they said represented a savings of roughly $200. They also picked up a Phillips Surround Sound for $168, also a savings of around $200, the couple said.
They also got a Sony PS3, clothing, a microwave and skateboards.
At the same store, Olga Hernandez and David Shaw bought 12 DVD movies for $1.96. The cheapest movies during the year usually are $5, the couple remarked.
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 signalled 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."
University of South Florida grad students Anirban Ghosh and Swathi Nakala, who are originally from India, enjoyed their first shopping experience in the United States at Ellenton Friday.
"And seeing the American brands in the same place all over," Ghosh said.
They traveled with a caravan of several USF students.
"We've been here since midnight," Nakala said.
The mall officially opened at midnight, although some vendors, like the newly renovated Coach store and NIKE Factory, opened at 9 p.m. Thursday. Other stores, like the GAP, opened just before midnight.
"We're doing better than last year's numbers," said Rick McLellan, NIKE store manager.
"Our first wave had a really good morning," said Caitlin Taylor, stock supervisor at the GAP. "Our label pieces went fast."
Friday marked the mall's seventh annual midnight madness sale.
"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."
In preparation for the weekend sales event, stores stockpiled good and doubled exposure on the sales floor.
"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."
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