MANATEE -- Dedicated Thanksgiving Day bargain hunters skipped the traditional turkey and stuffing to wait hours in the cold -- some in pitched tents, others wrapped in blankets -- as stores opened at various hours, from before sunrise to midnight.
Traffic offered testimony Thursday evening that most people had finished dinner and were ready to bargain hunt as cars lined up in the southbound lanes of Interstate-75 near the Ellenton Premium Outlets and clogged the eastbound lanes of U.S. Hwy. 301 leading to the mall.
Thanksgiving Day, it seems, has become the unofficial start to Black Friday. It's been a creeping trend made more apparent this year as retailers work to add to their bottom line during the shortened stretch between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
On social media sites, there was much discussion this year about whether shopping on Thanksgiving, traditionally a family day, was appropriate. Many folks vowed to eschew shopping on the holiday, but for some the bargains were just too enticing.
Just before 8 p.m. Thursday, Hayley Rio, 42, of Ellenton, was waiting in line at Bradenton's Sears store at DeSoto Square mall in hopes of buying a washer-dryer pair for $800 to $1,000 less than its regular price.
"We just ate early -- lunch instead of dinner," she said while acknowledging she "would rather be home."
Shoppers who had been standing in line for the bargains since 1:30 p.m. were wrapped in blankets to brace against a cold snap.
Some Thanksgiving Day shoppers were up at the crack of dawn in an effort to take advantage of doorbuster specials and to pick up items for holiday festivities.
Alessandro Salazar, 26, and his wife, Lucy, went shopping at Ellenton's K-Mart store early in the day, and again, later in the afternoon, they said.
"We're getting a new home," explained Alessandro Salazar, a furniture refinisher from Palmetto. They were shopping for new bedroom linens for a baby they're expecting, they said.
The Salazars' 3-year-old daughter Julianna was aware Christmas is just around the corner as she asked her parents about Christmas gifts.
Another group of shoppers were visiting from Miami, they said. They were in the electronics section of the store, checking out an emergency radio.
Charlie Grep, 33, of Parrish, was rushing toward the check-out counter with heating canisters to keep food on his buffet tables warm, he said.
The Kmart opened Thanksgiving Day at 6 a.m., and won't close again until 11 p.m. Friday, said Assistant Manager Donna Cornman.
About 115 employees will staff the store Thursday and Friday, she said.
At the outlet mall in Ellenton, Jen Ruiz, 21, a server, and Zeke Alfaro, 22, of Apollo Beach, brought two young children in a stroller and were standing in line waiting for Michael Kors to open.
Ruiz hoped to snag $200 off on a purse that normally sells for $300.
"We were with our family in the morning, and now, we're here to shop," Ruiz said of shopping on Thanksgiving day.
About 79 of the Premium Outlet mall's 130 stores opened at 8 p.m., while the rest opened between 8 p.m. and midnight, said Sarah Ozgun, director of marketing and business development.
The Ellenton outlet was one of the first to begin midnight madness after Thanksgiving, and as shoppers lined up earlier and earlier stores began quietly opening Thanksgiving night allowing shoppers to get an early start on the Black Friday madness.
Ozgun said the majority of stores now open at 8 p.m. "to meet customer demand."
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.