As “Gray Thanksgiving” turned into Black Friday in 2013, the shopping landscape in the Tampa Bay area developed into a tale of two worlds: Big Box stores versus the malls. Each had their day of crowds and mayhem, just not on the same day.
While stores like Walmart and Target saw huge crowds on Thanksgiving Day — the first time many of those stores opened for Thanksgiving — they largely emptied out on Black Friday. By then, the crowds appear to have driven in mass to more upscale shopping malls, as some top-tier malls hit capacity in their parking lots, leaving the Big Box stores with more employees than customers in some cases.
“I've learned that unless I really have the money for something specific, I don't go anywhere near the crowds,” said Dewane Thomas, who was trying out a Samsung smart watch at BestBuy on Friday. “I guess everyone already went out yesterday. This is nothing like last year. That was crazy. I know people in the military who take leave, just to shop the deals.”
At Target, near downtown Tampa early Friday, there were no lines at the cash registers, and the store still had stacks of HDTVs. International Plaza mall, by contrast, had so many people the parking lots were full to capacity.
In year's past, Black Friday was the center of the shopping frenzy, and it was a relatively straightforward shopping stampede. Simply line up early (camping out if necessary) and when the doors opened at 12:01 a.m., run to beat everyone else through the door.
Now, shoppers face a blizzard of different “Black Friday” deals, some starting on Thanksgiving Day, some starting a week ago — both online and in stores. Some stores opened on Thanksgiving morning, but not all of them at the same time. Cyber Monday isn't until next week, but some online merchants will start some of those deals on Sunday.
And that adds to the normal retail game of cat-and-mouse with customers.
For instance, Bed, Bath & Beyond sent e-mail alerts to customers on Wednesday, with a coupon for 20-percent off anything in the store on Black Friday. But that's hardly different than the 20-25 percent off coupons the store mails to customers on a frequent basis.
Sometimes, the challenge for shoppers is simply dealing with information overload. While Target had in-store deals, the store also had an online Black Friday site with a full 68 pages of deals on girls' toys.
Amazon had Black Friday deals on HDTVs, but shoppers were faced with thousands of choices, each advertised with special Black Friday prices. This can leave shoppers wondering whether there's any purpose to going to the physical stores, other than the pure sport and adventure of facing down the crowds.
Much of the action started at Big Box stores on Thanksgiving Day.
Ashley Causey tried to face the crowds at Walmart in Tampa on Thanksgiving night, and did score a few kid's pajamas for $5 each. Hordes of people packed the aisles. But Causey noticed the most aggressive of shoppers had their own work-arounds to beat the system. Because Walmart is normally open 24 hours a day, the store had pre-determined sale prices on specific items at specific times.
“People knew that the real deals started at 6 p.m., and the cash registers wouldn't give you that price until then,” she said. “So people went there early in the day, stuffed their carts and just waited to go to the register.”
Jeff Causey, who was shopping with her, said the whole store resembled the end of a riot. “You'd see one aisle where they had clothes going on sale, and then boom,” he said. “There were piles of clothes everywhere. It was nuts.”
Nationally, there were some reports of shopping violence.
There was one case of a Wal-Mart worker on Long Island, N.Y. who died after being trampled by customers who broke through the doors early Friday, and other workers were trampled as they tried to rescue the man, according to The New York Times. At least four other people, including a woman who was eight months pregnant, were taken to hospitals.
Fights and injuries occurred elsewhere at other stores operated by Wal-Mart, the nation's leading discount chain, which is one of the few retailers thriving in the current economy.
Two men at a crowded Toys “R” Us in Palm Desert, Calif., pulled guns and shot each other to death after women with them brawled, witnesses said. The company released a statement late Friday saying the deaths were related to a personal dispute and not Black Friday shopping.
But by mid-morning Friday in Tampa, many Big Box stores seemed as busy as any normal day, or less so.
At the Target store near downtown Tampa on Black Friday, there were only a few dozen people in the store. No lines at the cash register, and many of the deep-discount HDTVs still stood in racks, waiting to be picked up.
Almost the opposite happened at many big shopping malls in the region. Many anchor stores like Sears, Macy's and others opened 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, while inside the mall it was a mix with some smaller stores open and not. The malls saw their real traffic explode on Friday.
The halls at Tyrone Square Mall in St. Petersburg started quietly Friday morning, save for a few wandering shoppers and large groups of employees standing around. A half-dozen cashiers stood behind the register at Old Navy, but only two or three customers meandered in to enjoy the advertised 50 percent off the entire store. Activity picked up considerably by 8 a.m., though the stores appeared no busier than a typical weekday.
By mid-afternoon Friday, the scarcest gift at the Westfield Countryside Mall on U.S. 19 in Clearwater was a parking space.
“It's been crazy,” said Shawn Trivedi of Meher Jewelers. “We've been open since 8 p.m. Thanksgiving night and will be open until 9 .m. tonight [Friday]. Trivedi did take a break Friday from 9:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m., turning over the counter to a colleague, but said business had been steady. “It's better than a year ago,” he said.
The line for Macy's in Tampa started building before midnight Black Friday, and stretched most of the way through Westshore Plaza mall in Tampa, said mall spokeswoman Kristy Genna. By mid-morning on Black Friday, the Old Navy store hit capacity inside and a line of 25 people formed outside the store, waiting for people to exit so they could go in and shop.
International Plaza was essentially closed all Thanksgiving day, but was packed through Black Friday morning, and the parking lots were at capacity from 11 a.m. through 7 p.m. Most mall stores avoided doorbuster deals on individual items, and instead went with flat-discounts across the store — which started several weeks ago at some places. Neiman Marcus had sales of 30 percent off, Lucky Brand Jeans at 30-percent off, Cache with 40-percent off and Coldwater Creek with 50-percent off.
Still, the psychology of shopping prevailed over pure logic, as the Sephora cosmetics store had a capacity crowd, even though it had no official discounts at all; merely a small gift bag.
Shopper Shell Wicker had a metaphorical foot in both Thanksgiving and Black Friday shopping.
Her daughter and son in law went to Target Thanksgiving night to buy iPads, and used the $100 gift card that Target offered on the first one to help buy the second one, which then gave them another $100 credit.
Today, the whole Wicker crew has hit the Disney store, Victoria's Secret, Chico's and Bath and body works.
“The mall was almost empty when we first got here early in the morning,” she said. “But it's filled right up now, and we're done. Done.”
The holiday buying frenzy was felt beyond the big department stores and electronics outlets.
What was left of the Black Friday sunshine beamed in through the windows of Mojo Books & Music on East Fowler Avenue, as a customer or two picked through what was left of the records on sale.
“We were wanting good sales,” said co-owner Melanie Cade, “and we got it.”
There's a big difference between Black Friday at a box store and Black Friday here, she said.
“Instead of coming in for a sale on a television set,” she said, “people are finding great gifts for their someone special right here.”
On North Florida Avenue, the scent of Cleanse Apothecary spilled out onto the sidewalk, as owner Greg Curtis tidied up inside. “The day here was good,” he said. “It exceeded last year.”
The small shop deals in bath and body products and has regular customers from as far away as St. Petersburg and Dade City.
This is Curtis's fourth Christmas at this location, he said. “It gets better every year.”
Includes reporting by Josh Boatwright, Ted Jackovics, Keith Morelli and material from The New York Times.