Hours before dawn, Black Friday crowds of shoppers hit Manatee stores (with video)

BRADENTON — Shoppers tailgated, clogged the roadways and crowded the stores across Manatee County on Friday.

The economy remains on thin ice, but Black Friday still drew throngs of eager, and bleary-eyed, consumers.

“This is pretty wild,” said Brittany Davis, of the midnight crowd at Ellenton Premium Outets.

The Apollo Beach resident stood in a line at least 100 people deep outside Coach as shoppers waited to shop for 20 to 40 percent discounts on designer handbags shortly after midnight.

The fifth annual Midnight Madness at the Ellenton outlets drew an estimated 25,000 customers as the mall’s 2,400 parking lot was maxed out once retailers opened their doors. More than a dozen Florida Highway Patrol officers helped direct traffic coming off U.S. 301 as well as pedestrians crossing 60th Avenue East from the off-site parking lots of nearby businesses.

“There is a magic to Midnight Madness and Black Friday and people have come out in droves,” said Bill Mann, general manager of Ellenton Premium Outlets.

Black Friday, which traditionally is the day retailers move out of the red, looks as though it will be profitable despite lingering economic troubles.Unemployment is 11.7 percent in Manatee County and 11.6 percent in Florida, but the retail trade associations expect holiday sales to see its biggest increase since before the recession.

The Florida Retail Federation projects a 3 to 4 percent holiday sales increase this year. And the National Retail Federation forecasts a 2.3 percent increase nationwide for an estimated $447.1 billion in holiday sales.

Last year, nationwide holiday sales dipped 0.4 percent and decreased 3.9 percent in 2008.

“We had a lot more people in line outside the store than we’ve ever had in the past,” said Jay Kerrick, store manager for Target, 6150 14th St. W.

Target’s two-day sale featured hot deals on electronics such as a $298 40-inch HDTV, a $99 wireless Blu-Ray player and a $50 gift card with the purchase of a $199 X-Box 360.

“Most of our doorbusters were gone very quickly,” Kerrick said. “Most the electronics went with the crowd that was waiting. We were pretty much cleaned out.”

The National Retail Federation says an estimated 138 million people will have shopped between Friday and Sunday, about 4 million more than who turned out during Black Friday weekend last year.

“Consumers are showing that they’re tired of being totally frugal, and that they plan on being a little more generous this year,” said Rick McAllister, president and chief executive officer of the Florida Retail Federation.

Rice’s Appliance and TV looked to capitalize on the projected sales increases this year. It was the first Black Friday sale for the store at 6430 14th St. W. that John Rice Sr. opened in March with his sons John Rice Jr. and Joe Rice.

“We’re expecting a pretty strong holiday season,” said Joe Rice, who opened the store at 7 a.m. with at least 100 people lined up for deals such as a $97 Blu-Ray home theater system. “We made sure to put out a lot of offers that are competitive with the big box stores.”

At University Town Center in East Manatee, the scene at Best Buy looked more like that of a sporting event. Consumers camped out in tents, blared music, tossed the football around and played another tailgating game favorite, bean bag toss, as they waited for the electronic store’s 5 a.m. opening.

“We’ve been pretty entertained,” said Blake Williams, whose tent was stocked with lawn chairs and portable video game consoles. “We’ve been playing games, playing cards.”

Kaytlin Hartlin wasn’t too far behind Williams in line. She waited to purchase a Toshiba laptop computer advertised for $189.

“I’ve been here since about 6 today,” Hartlin said just before 2 a.m. Friday. “I mean Thursday.”

Shopping crowds at DeSoto Square Mall, Bealls and Toys “R” Us were steady at mid-morning hours. DeSoto Square opened at 5 a.m. and many consumers spilled over from JcPenney, Macy’s and Sears, all of which opened at 4 a.m.

“A lot of stores have commented how things have gotten a lot better compared to previous years,” said Brent Gardner, general manager of DeSoto Square. “Of course, because of the economy people are still looking for those things on sale and that’s what draws people in so earlier they’re looking for the best price.”