Thanksgiving shopping a hit with most customers

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"Shopsgiving," as a Ross Park Mall customer labeled the Thanksgiving launch of the holiday giving season this year, may have heated up the national rhetoric around Black Friday, but it cooled down the actual event.

Just ask Dan Wareham of Robinson. As is customary, he and his wife arrived at the Mall at Robinson around 4:30 a.m. Friday in their annual post-Thanksgiving shopping mission to spoil their granddaughters.

"I got here at the same time last year and I couldn't find a place to park -- this year, I'm right outside the door," Mr. Wareham said. "I was shocked. The stores are empty."

Shoppers take advantage of early store openings

Shoppers take advantage of early openings at stores around the region. (Video by Nate Guidry; 11/28/2013)

Major retailers hurried to offer reports Friday to back up their controversial decisions to open earlier than ever, with the biggest, Walmart, reporting more than 10 million register transactions between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. Thursday and handling nearly 400 million page views on its website Thursday.

"By all appearances and according to CEOs I've spoken with across the retail spectrum, it looks like the early opening of stores on Thanksgiving and the traditional start of holiday shopping on Black Friday is breaking new records, including what companies are seeing through their digital channels," said Matthew Shay, president and CEO of industry trade group National Retail Federation.

The Washington, D.C., trade group has been predicting holiday sales during November and December -- which generally produce a hefty percentage of the full year's sales -- will rise 3.9 percent to $602 billion.

Meanwhile, activist groups held another round of protests outside of Walmart stores nationally to raise awareness of the plight of retail workers who struggle to make a living with jobs that may pay minimum wage, trap them in part-time slots and offer few benefits. Walmart issued statements during the day defending its treatment of workers.

'Could have slept in'

As the various debates waged on, shoppers went about their business -- sorting through piles of offers that started with early Black Friday sales days ago and kept going with online offers steadily streaming into email boxes and ongoing rounds of "doorbuster" deals found at bricks-and-mortar stores. The retail strategy of keeping the thrills and the buyers coming meant people could pick their own start times.

Karen Madden of Moon arrived at the Mall at Robinson around 6:30 a.m. Friday with her mother and sister, expecting the deals and crowds they've become accustomed to over the past five years of their family Black Friday shopping outing.

While the deals were there -- retail outlets such as Ruum, Gap and Express were discounting all of their merchandise by 40 or 50 percent -- the shoppers weren't. "I've been here on a Friday night when it's more crowded," she said. "I feel like I could have slept in."

How that calm will impact total sales for the weekend, during which the retail federation predicted 140 million people would shop in some fashion, remains to be seen, but it may have helped, in part, avoid widespread safety issues. Toys R Us executive vice president of stores and services Troy Rice, who spent Thursday evening in stores around Independence, Mo., said shoppers didn't seem frustrated, workers kept things moving and few people waited more than 25 minutes to check out.

No extra snow globe for you

J.C. Penney, which opened its doors nationally at 8 p.m. Thursday, won a second pop of retail excitement in the middle of night when the struggling department store chain returned to its tradition of handing out free snow globes.

Shelby Walker was on duty Friday at 4 a.m. to hand out snow globes at Monroeville Mall, a duty she had handled for more than a decade before last year's interruption. This year 75 people were standing around the children's department, waiting for the cart loaded with 1,100 tiny snow globes.

One woman walked back around hoping to get another by casually reaching for one. Then she told a long story about how she has a bus full of people to whom she gives snow globes. Later she was back, pleading for another because she is on so much medication she is practically a drug addict.

Finally, she corralled another shopper and asked her to get one for her. Ms. Walker saw through every attempt.

Stuck at the checkout

Lines could be found elsewhere, too. More than 12 hours after it opened, the checkout line at Kohl's in South Strabane snaked around almost half the store.

But Michelle Colbert, 38, of Washington, said having businesses open on Thanksgiving seemed to spread out the crowds across several hours, making her trip easier.

Waiting for Friday

At Costco on the Waterfront in West Homestead -- one of the few major retailers to remain closed on Thanksgiving -- about two dozen shoppers gathered in the vestibule at 8:45 a.m. Friday, shielded from the wind and waiting quietly for the 9 a.m. opening, one hour earlier than on a normal weekday for the warehouse club.

Several expressed the same sentiment -- that Costco did the right thing by bucking the trend and giving all employees the day off on Thanksgiving.

"I was glad they were closed," said Kathy Galley of White Oak, who showed up for a Samsung Galaxy tablet advertised at $100 off.

"I was in retail for years. You were never with your family," she said. "It wasn't nice."

Rest for the weary

By 10 a.m. Friday, the all-night shopping crowd at the Mall at Robinson showed signs of weariness.

One customer had fallen asleep on a sofa outside Macy's, surrounded by shopping bags. Next to her, high school students Heather Naples and Mariah White were thinking of calling it a day, and a night.

"We've been up for 24 hours," said Heather, 16. "We've been planning this for weeks."

Mariah, 17, started shopping at 8 p.m., battling crowds with her mother in Wheeling, W.Va. When her mother tired of shopping, she and Heather headed to Robinson, arriving around 3 a.m. The girls were surprised to find the mall "kind of dead," but pleased to snag deals such as a $10 Victoria's Secret tote bag.

"I've always wanted to come early," said Mariah, already excited to repeat the all-nighter next year.

Same time, next year?

The malls may make that possible. A line of bargain hunters stood outside before Ross Park Mall's 8 p.m. opening, kicking off a steady flow of activity that peaked around 10 p.m. and was still buzzing after midnight, according to mall manager Lisa Earl.

Ms. Earl couldn't say exactly how many shoppers passed through but said the crowd level "definitely beat the previous year." She said the positive response will likely lead to another 8 p.m. opening next year.

"The whole reason we opened at 8 was to provide more flexibility and more options to our customers. Based on what we've seen since we opened our doors, it has been very well received," she said.

At the Robinson mall, the parking lot was about 85 percent full for the midnight opening. Mall gift cards for the first 500 people in line disappeared in seven minutes, said marketing director Shema Krinsky.

"We were pleasantly surprised," she said. "We weren't sure what to expect with the sporadic openings this year."

The crowds tapered off around 3 a.m. and picked back up again around 5 a.m., she said.

Shopping team uniforms

Holiday shopping helps drive the U.S. economy, but those faces lined up at the cash registers all have their own stories.

Tracy Tomosovich, of Level Green, was out with her niece and four friends at Monroeville Mall, waiting for free snow globes. They call themselves the Black Friday Entourage and had T-shirts with all of their names and the sub heading, "We went. We spent."

The "Sisterhood of the Black Friday" also shops with matching white sweatshirts. The sisterhood is made up of three sisters, Lori Calhoun of Harrison City, Lenore Costello of Forest Hills and Cheryl Kaufman of Forest Hills and their mother, Patty Manilla of Monroeville.

The next generation of girls, Valerie Calhoun and Kayla Costello, did not have the sweatshirts. Valerie, 15, declared, "I'm not wearing that."

A love story

Any holiday story needs a dollop of romance. A 24-year-old coal miner from West Virginia took advantage of the sales to buy his girlfriend an engagement ring Friday at the Kay Jewelers at Tanger Outlets in South Strabane. (Giving his name here might give away the surprise.)

"I feel like it's the right thing," he said. "I'm definitely sure about her. I'm going to be a dad. ... But I thought about [this] before."

His 24-year-old friend saw an ad online for a deal at the jewelry store. The pair, who graduated from high school together in Ohio, arrived at Tanger about 5 a.m. They spent about 90 minutes in the store, finally settling on a 14-carat gold ring for $2,900.

"[An employee] said if I would have bought it yesterday, it would have been $6,000," he said.

He plans to propose on Valentine's Day 2014.

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