Bargain hunters line up for Black Friday deals on Thanksgiving

Turkey was still cooling after Thanksgiving meals around Charlotte and Black Friday was technically hours away, but shoppers flocked to area malls and stores Thursday evening for an early start to holiday shopping.

Many were after big discounts on electronics. And, reflecting the still-strained economy, some said they planned to buy just a few deeply discounted items and nothing else.

Retailers pushed their opening times earlier than ever before, with most welcoming Thanksgiving Day shoppers in the early evening. Promotions that began when the sun was still up Thanksgiving – or even days before online – may have blunted much of the frenzy associated with Black Friday, which used to feature hordes of bleary-eyed customers surging into stores before sunrise.

Several shoppers said the crowds were smaller than in past years, and the day felt more like a regular weekday. When Charlotte Premium Outlets and SouthPark mall opened at 6 p.m., parking was abundant and traffic nonexistent.

But those who came were ready to spend, and electronics – especially big screen TVs – were the most popular items.

“Forty-inch, $119,” said Yatu Davis, explaining why he was first in line at the Northlake Best Buy. Four other men were waiting behind him.

“Forty, 40, 40!” chanted Lamont Dennis, waiting behind Davis. Both were looking forward to getting the 40-inch Element TV offered as a limited-quantity “doorbuster” special at 6 p.m. “If I don’t come home with the TV, I might not get Thanksgiving dinner,” said Dennis, who plans to put the 40-inch TV in his bedroom. Last year, he said he bought a 50-inch TV.

Dennis said there were far fewer people in line, however, than at the same time at the store in 2013. “Last year, it was packed,” he said, adding that the line was around the corner of the building.

At the Best Buy in the Metropolitan, several dozen people in line were also mostly interested in TVs. Several people had waited overnight, taking turns grabbing naps in their car and holding each others’ spots in line, wrapped in blankets and coats against the cold. They shared strategies for staying warm: Some had coffee and tea, while a woman who gave her name as Candy said she had a bottle of Absolut vodka to share.

“I did my homework,” said Ginger Moore, third in line and bundled snugly in a fur-lined coat, gloves and a blanket on her camping chair. “I didn’t come out all willy-nilly.”

She decided Best Buy’s 50-inch Panasonic TV, on sale for $199, was a good enough deal to wait in line for and miss the family meal. Other Panasonic 50-inch TVs sell for $499 or more. She researched locations and decided on the Metropolitan because it’s covered and wouldn’t have traffic as bad as the area’s malls. And at 10:30 p.m. Wednesday, Moore grabbed her spot, waiting through the chilly night.

Once she buys her TV, Moore said she planned to go home and crash. It’s hard sleeping on a camp chair in a Best Buy parking lot, and she hadn’t gotten much rest.

“I got a turkey TV dinner,” she said. “I’m going home and shutting it down.”

On Thursday, Kmart opened at 6 a.m. and Radio Shack opened at 8 a.m. Toys ‘R’ Us and Best Buy opened at 5 p.m., while Belk, Target, Macy’s, Walmart opened at 6 p.m. All of the local malls also opened at 6 p.m., with the exception of Northlake, which opened at 8 p.m.

Only a few national chains, such as Costco and Nordstrom, are still closed on Thanksgiving, holding out for an actual Black Friday opening.

At Toys ‘R’ Us in Pineville, the crowd right before the store opened was noticeably smaller than last year, filling about one-third of the long, snaking lines set up to corral shoppers as they waited to get into the store. Again, electronics were the biggest draw for many.

“I’ve got to get the (Playstation) 4,” said Deseray Thomas, shopping for her 5-year-old son. The gaming console was on sale for $399.

Inside the store, a manager gave a pump-up speech over the loudspeakers right before opening the doors.

“We are smiling and happy and ready to go today!” he said, before letting the crowd in.

At Charlotte Premium Outlets, groups of several dozen shoppers waited in line outside individual stores before the 6 p.m. opening. High-end stores such as Michael Kors and Kate Spade had the longest lines, but there were also crowds of several dozen outside Under Armour and Old Navy.

“I saw the purse I wanted, grabbed it and walked out,” said a woman holding a Michael Kors bag, waiting in line at Starbucks – which also had one of the longest lines, as the night got chilly.

Even though the “doorbuster deal” hype is centered on Thanksgiving Day now, malls will still be busy Friday, with stores offering markdowns all day to lure shoppers. According to a survey by the National Retail Federation, about 25.6 million adults planned to shop on Thanksgiving Day, while 95.5 million are planning to shop Friday.

Stores have some reasons to be optimistic this holiday season. Gas prices have plummeted, giving shoppers more disposable income, and unemployment is down. The National Retail Federation is forecasting shoppers will spend about $617 billion this year between Thanksgiving and Christmas, up 4.1 percent from last year. That would be a strong gain, outpacing last decade’s average 2.9 percent increase.

But there are still warning flags. Wages nationally have been stagnant, and many workers who lost their jobs in the recent recession are still working part-time or at jobs where they make less money than they had been. Retailers started touting their holiday discounts early this season, with deals advertised all through November.

At the Northlake Best Buy, Faheem Salaam had a simple explanation for why about 40 people were waiting in line instead of eating Thanksgiving dinner: “It’s the TVs.”

Like most in the crowd, Salaam said he was there for the 50-inch Panasonic TV. He said he ate a small Thanksgiving dinner Wednesday, and woke up at 6 a.m. Thursday to get in line. But Salaam said he wasn’t the most hardcore bargain-hunter in the crowd.

“She’s been out here since 10” the night before, he said, pointing to a woman bundled in blankets in a camping chair. “Now, that’s a long time.”

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