Darkness began to settle over Central Texas Marketplace late Thursday afternoon, as a handful of stores offered half-off sales and giveaways to the bored, the bargain hunters and shopaholics who could not wait for Thanksgiving to morph into Black Friday before launching their assault.
As the hour grew later, more shops joined the fun, welcoming people worn out from watching the Los Angeles Chargers manhandle the Dallas Cowboys, “The Godfather” marathon on AMC, or the roll of dice during family game time following the post-feast napathon.
Many of shoppers said they long for the days when retailers kept their shops dark on Thanksgiving. They said the holiday is meant for family, friends and fellowship. Yet there they were, slipping into Kirkland’s, Old Navy, Ross or Forever 21 for a late-night browse.
Then came the genuine article, the arrival of Black Friday.
“At 4:45 a.m., 15 minutes before our opening, I was passing out numbers to keep things orderly, and there were about 465 in line,” said John Gilbert, spokesman for the Cabela’s store at the marketplace. “That was followed by a rush of people who did not have numbers, so I would estimate we had in the low 500s at 5 o’clock.”
It helped that the first 600 in line qualified for a drawing and prizes ranging from gift cards to outdoor gear and firearms valued at more than $8,000.
Gilbert said shoppers bolted for the firearms counter, “where sales were very brisk,” and lines formed at registers throughout the store, with people shelling out for smokers and nice-weather fishing gear.
Academy Sports & Outdoors also opened at 5 a.m., “and we had at least 200 people waiting in line,” manager Todd Cauthron said.
“Their reward? First choice of anything they wanted,” Cauthron said, indicating the chain offered no special promotion targeting early risers.
Tristen Calabrese, 28, traveled to Waco from Houston and joined the crowd at Kohl’s on Thursday.
“I’m here for the deals,” Calabrese said. “My mom needed a vacuum cleaner, and I came here to get one. I’m also going to pick up a FitBit Charge 2 because she has started walking.”
Calabrese said her stepping foot in a store on Thanksgiving Day is a departure from routine, but bargains know no holiday.
At the Five Below shop, where everything from “The Walking Dead” buttons to suspenders and “Call of Duty” posters are priced below $5, the aisles were crammed and the registers ringing with purchases Thursday evening.
“We came here looking for cheap toys for the kids,” said Ashley Goldade, 31, who was browsing with her husband, 36-year-old Matt Goldade.
They left their youngsters, ages 12, 9, 6 and 4, with family members.
They seldom venture out on Thanksgiving Day to shop, “but this was a spur-of-the-moment thing,” Ashley Goldade said. “We’ve already had our turkey, and the Cowboys weren’t even on, so here we are.”
As Thursday evening unfolded, more locations came alive. Traffic picked up as shoppers maneuvered for parking spaces near the shops, and longer lines of vehicles formed near the Bagby Avenue entrance.
“I was bored,” said Hannah Drumm, 20, a sophomore at Baylor University majoring in apparel design.
She was scheduled to work a shift at The Gap at 9 p.m. but made a quick trip to Old Navy, drawn by half-off sales and the promise of “cheap clothes.”
“I don’t like it,” she replied when asked about the trend toward stores opening on Thanksgiving. “It takes away from the togetherness of the holidays. But to be honest, I don’t mind working.”
The National Retail Federation predicted 32 million people would hit the stores on what has become “Black Thursday,” thumbing their nose at what for decades was the launch of the holiday shopping season and for many retailers a time when a profitable year hung in the balance.
It projected a turnout of 115 million on Black Friday, and said 164 million would shop during the holiday weekend and Cyber Monday.
Jana Whitmer, 53, of Waco, made visiting The Gap a family affair that included two of her four children who tried on clothes and pursued deep discounts “on all purchases, no exceptions,” as the sign said.
“I’m really not a person who does a lot of shopping and I wouldn’t be shopping on Thanksgiving if the stores weren’t open,” Whitmer said. “If we were at home, we would be enjoying activities together, and that’s what we’re doing here.”
Across town from the marketplace, at the Target Greatland store, the crowd in the parking lot had swollen to near capacity by 9 p.m. Thursday, and dozens of customers pushed carts piled high with gifts.
“I came here just for this,” said Javann Peoples, 33, of Fort Worth, pointing to a Hatchimals-branded doll for her 4-year-old daughter. “I don’t think the stores should open on Thanksgiving, that everybody should spend time with their family. That’s why I’m buying just this one item.”
The Best Buy electronics store was “crazy” on Thursday, according to multiple sources. Meanwhile, the JC Penney store at Richland Mall was bustling in the early afternoon Friday, manager Steven Valdez said.
“Up to 40 percent off major appliances,” a nearby sign silently blared.
“We have had tremendous sales growth from last year,” Valdez saaid. “New to Penney’s are toys for kids, drones and PlayStations, and they are selling very well. I would expect that the best is yet to come. We will probably really get busy between 2 and 6 p.m.”
At Earthbound, a novelty shop with a nod to nature, manager Lierna Jackson said, “We’re doing OK. We’re not terribly busy, not as busy as last year. The best sellers are our higher-ticketed items.”
Mall manager Kandace Menning said she noticed crowds of note at Footaction, Bath & Body Works, Victoria’s Secret and Dillard’s.
“Traffic has been excellent, crazy in a good way, steady since 10 a.m.,” Bath & Body Works supervisor Mandy Schronk said. “I was not here last year, but from what other people are telling me, business is a lot better than it was on Black Friday last year.”
It helped that the new White Barn candle-and-scent emporium has opened next door to offer home fragrances, Schronk said.
“We’re also offering a buy-three-get-three deal,” she said.
Walmart announced Friday it would offer several of its Black Friday deals on Cyber Monday, including a Samsung 58-inch TV for $598, Bose QuietComfort noise-canceling headphones for $179 and a 1 terabyte PlayStation 4 Slim for $199, according to a press release.