MANATEE -- Most people wouldn't use the word "relaxed" to describe Black Friday. But this year, the rush of the shopping holiday was hardly a rush at all.
Online shopping, Cyber Monday deals, extended store hours and a longer life for promotions have all contributed to a decline in midnight madness and early morning crowds on Black Friday. The Black Friday frenzy still happens, but it's spread out more evenly beginning Thanksgiving night and throughout the day on Black Friday. Sue Reynolds, store manager at the University Park Kohl's said she helped open the store on Thanksgiving at 6 p.m. Traffic slowed down just after 2 a.m., Reynolds said, and picked up again at around 7 a.m. She expected traffic to peak midday before the store's Black Friday sales ended at 1 p.m.
"The first customer we had yesterday got here at 2 p.m.," Reynolds said. "It's all been calm and controlled since we opened last night." She's never seen a fight between shoppers on Black Friday and this year was no different.
Playstations, TVs, FitBits and other fitness accessories all sold "very quickly" and small kitchen electronics flew off of Kohl's shelves as well. The store also saw success with "Star Wars" merchandise which is expected to be a big hit this holiday season.
"We have Star Wars everywhere," Reynolds said. She was surprised to see younger children clamoring for merchandise featuring the classic sci-fi films because the first "Star Wars" movie debuted in May 1977 --but a new installment in the series will debut Dec. 18. In general, Reynolds said her store saw steady traffic on Black Friday.
The Mall at University Town Center also saw a consistent stream of shoppers. The mall's manager, Octavio Ortiz, said preparing for this year's Black Friday was a little easier simply because it wasn't the first year. The mall opened a little more than a month before Thanksgiving last year.
In recent years, Black Friday consumers have breathed easier with extended shopping hours and earlier store openings.
Mary Kvederis hit the Mall at UTC at 8 a.m. to take advantage of sale prices at Lululemon, a women's athletic apparel store. Kvederis and her 10-year-old daughter Brynn took advantage of 65 percent off sales at Macy's before lining up at Lululemon.
Kvederis had an advantage because she knows one of Lululemon's employees and got the inside details on sales before she made her Black Friday plans. She's always been a Black Friday shopper but enjoys the reprieve now offered by extended store hours and promotions.
"In years past I have noticed they have spread it out," Kvederis said. "I think it eases it up and the crowds kind of took away from it. I don't like confrontation."
Ortiz said the longer shopping holiday helps retailers, too.
"I think it does help spread out the business," Ortiz said. "Instead of just weekend sales (retailers) want to promote sales earlier in the week." He said the mall's crowds were similar to last year's but more shoppers showed up on Thanksgiving this year.
"And I think that's because of promotions," he said. "Retailers want to capture that business as soon as they can." On Black Friday, the mall opened at 8 a.m. instead of 7 a.m. as they did last year. After this year's holiday season, Ortiz said they'll meet with the mall's tenants and evaluate what worked about the hours.
Even though the business may not come all at one time, retailers still see a boost during Thanksgiving week.
"It is still a big day for retailers," Ortiz said. "People have family in town and a lot of times it's a tradition for families to shop together after Thanksgiving."
The mall saw most of its traffic on Thanksgiving and a lot of it had to do with families choosing to dine out instead of stay home and cook. Seasons 52 had about 800 reservations and The Capital Grille had approximately 550, Ortiz said.
Best Buy joined other retailers in opening on Thanksgiving and saw success from the decision, said Bobby Borges, general manager at the Cattlemen Road Best Buy store.
"Yesterday the traffic was amazing," Borges said. "We had several hundred waiting to come in and we expect solid traffic all weekend long."
As he expected, 4K TVs, Apple products and fitness accessories were big sellers. Borges has more than a decade of experience with Black Friday and said when stores were only open on Black Friday the store was a frenzy.
"Per hour, it's crazy," Borges said of past Black Fridays. "Because you're condensing everything."
But with stores open on Thanksgiving, shoppers don't feel as rushed and it shows in their interactions with each other and with store associates, Borges said.
"It's the new world of retail," he said. "It's nice to not have such a short window. It's easier for both the customer and the retailer to manage it."
Janelle O'Dea, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095 or follow her on Twitter@jayohday.