MANATEE -- Even the squirrels were busting through the doors Black Friday.
As shoppers made their way through the Lindt Chocolate store at the Ellenton Premium Outlets where customers squirreled away bags of truffles, the fluffy visitor wanted to check out the goods only to have shift supervisor Laquandra Ruckinger lure the curious animal out the door with almonds.
Yes, the holiday shopping season can be a little nuts, and the Thanksgiving-Black Friday combo is perhaps the nuttiest of them all. This weekend is a kick-off to a holiday sales season that Florida Retail Federation projects to be a 3.5- to 4.5-percent increase from last year.
National retailers say they saw a payoff from the early opening, according to the National Retail Federation, so don't expect things to change anytime soon, unless it's more retailers joining the Thanksgiving day fray.
"It looks like the Thanksgiving hours were fairly well attended," Florida Retail Federation spokesman
John Fleming said. "So far it's been steady through Black Friday, but it looks like the stores that opened earlier did more of their business with door busters when they were opened on Thanksgiving, and the Black Friday traffic went to the other stores that opened on Black Friday."
The craziness of the shopping season hit Melissa Parker of Sarasota when she stood in line at Kohl's on University Parkway at 8:30 p.m. Thursday.
"I was traumatized," she said Friday morning as she shopped in her sweatpants. "The line wrapped around the store and down the middle, so I knew I would have been here until midnight. I'm an early bird anyway, I came in here, got my deals, didn't wait."
Back at Lindt, Jennifer Robinson of Apollo Beach stood in line with her "Black Friday pro" daughter Kelly Robinson visiting from Blacksburg, Va. They didn't dare to step out into the Thanksgiving frenzy.
The two started at 6:30 a.m., Friday instead and visited Lindt to grab 100 truffles for $25.
"Sleep was important," Jennifer Robinson said.
What's sleep? The Miller family of Clearwater started after dessert Thanksgiving heading out to sales at Countryside Mall for midnight sales before taking a nap to rest for the Ellenton Outlets on Friday morning.
"It's a tradition with me and my sister, my brother and my niece," Tracye Miller said inside the Nike Factory Outlet with her daughter Shana. "It's our jumpstart to Christmas and is our family time, our bonding time."
Sears decided to bond with its customers at the DeSoto Square Mall, where employees greeted shoppers braving the brisk temperatures before the doors opened at 8 p.m. Thursday, said store manager Scott Irwin.
"The customers had a blast. They were clapping and applauding us and taking pictures as we were doing this," said Irwin, a veteran of 20 years of Black Friday with Sears, Target and The Limited.
The big sales items included appliance, electronics, footwear and tools at Sears, he said. Customers were taking advantage of the Sears Shop Your Way members rewards program to earn money back, and Irwin noticed the holiday layaway isn't as strong as last year.
"I don't see as many people taking advantage of that as I would have expected," he said. "Last year, it was much greater. This year not as much."
Lou Gregg of DeSoto Acres marveled at the oversized box of Whitman's chocolate offering 88 pieces for $19.99 at Sears, as her husband Jim Gregg manned the shopping cart full of Craftsman tools. The couple was more impressed with the ease getting into stores Friday.
"We can't believe there's no traffic on the highway. The parking lot's empty. This one gentleman who worked here helped us find stuff like that," Jim Gregg said. "This is the best time I've ever had shopping."
Lou Gregg hoped that the trend will switch back to a busy Black Friday instead of Thanksgiving sales, but retailers say they are open because of the customer demand. More than 40 percent of shoppers say they start buying Christmas gifts before Halloween each year, according to the Florida Retail Federation.
Nationally, retailers liked what they saw Thanksgiving and Black Friday.
"By all appearances and according to CEOs I've spoken with across the retail spectrum, 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," said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. "The key take away at this point is that the real winners are in fact the consumers, who are recognizing more savings through competitive pricing and great promotions being offered in every category."
That Friday morning lull the Gregg family experienced at Sears was noticeable around Manatee County. The Thanksgiving sales have helped prevent a traditional Black Friday gridlock, moving the needle on when cars are filling the roads for early bird sales. The crowds were expected to build later Friday morning and keep retailers humming on Saturday.
"It helps create a turnover at our stores and makes parking spots more available," said Sarah Ozgun, director of marketing and business development at the Ellenton Premium Outlets.
Traffic was steady at the outlets from 7 p.m. Thanksgiving to about 3:30 a.m., Friday, Ozgun said, with 79 stores opening at 8 p.m. and the remaining opening their doors at staggered times through midnight.
Handbag retailers were the most popular at the Ellenton Outlets during Midnight Madness, where Coach had more than 300 people lined up, while Michael Kors had about 75 customers and Kate Spade and Ralph Lauren each had 50 people waiting before the stores opened, she said.
If shoppers want to avoid the big crowds, Ozgun said it's best to either come as soon as the outlets open at 9 a.m., or 10 a.m. on Sunday, or after 7 p.m. through closing during the week.
Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.