BAXTER - Bundled shoppers waited in the pre-dawn cold of Black Friday.
Whether it was an annual ritual or a desire for a deal, area stores had the traditional lines outside their doors for the start to the holiday shopping season even as the breeze and single digits made for one of the colder Fridays after Thanksgiving in recent memory.
At Target in Baxter, the sheer size of the crowd was stunning to several shoppers who stopped in their tracks as they neared the store. The wide line stretched from the doors down the length of the store and into the parking lot. Arriving vehicles created mini traffic jams and people ran to the Target entrance after parking along streets or in Bonanza's lot.
Customers wrapped in blankets were lined up and waiting in the cold outside Mendards in Baxter more than two hours before the store was set to open Friday. One of the draws - an LED television for $99.
About 20 people stood in line outside Menards and more waited in running vehicles in the parking lot at least two hours before the store opened at 6 a.m. Before 3 a.m. people were lining up outside Herberger's in Brainerd and Kohl's in Baxter. And they were gathering at Walmart in Baxter even earlier.
At J.C. Penney Co. in Baxter, Brian Kinsey, store manager, gathered with his staff a few minutes before opening the doors at 3 a.m. The earlier hour caught some shoppers off-guard as all the commercials and promotional material listed 4 a.m. as the opening hour. But when Kohl's moved its opening up to 3 a.m. for the first time, J.C. Penney followed suit.
Dwight Lindgron, J.C. Penney training supervisor who has been with the retailer for 35 years, has watched the opening hour come earlier and earlier and said it may eventually move to midnight. That has already happened in larger markets.
Opening in the wee hours of Black Friday has been driven by competitive retailers, who offer prizes and discounted door busters to bring shoppers to their doors. During the recession, the discounts have been deep as shoppers clung to essentials and reduced spending.
Kinsey said a strong back-to-school shopping season gave retailers optimism about this holiday season. At J.C. Penney the preparation for Black Friday began in October. About 100 employees will work Black Friday. Some employees prepared by trying to go to sleep at 7 p.m. Thanksgiving night while others decided to stay up. Kinsey said it can be hard to get sleep in before the big day. As for working on that wild morning?
"I love it," Kinsey said. "If you have it planned right, it's not stressful at all."
Kinsey gathered the early shift together before opening the front doors. Last year's Black Friday was the store's single biggest day. Kinsey said the turnaround time was key with the customers in the checkout lane an average of six minutes. For Kinsey, that quick time is a key for the store and the relationship with the customers who then come back for repeat business.
When an employee called in with a sick child, Kinsey planned to fill in at the checkout counter. He said 88 percent of the store's Black Friday business is completed by 2 p.m.
But the recession left its mark. Kinsey predicts the changes are long-lasting for business in terms of the inventory it orders and the renewed focus on customer service as retailers compete for dollars.
"It's not how much has the customer spent at your store this time, it's about how many times the customer is coming back to your store," Kinsey said.
In reaching customers, Kinsey said: "We're doing a lot more marketing than we did last year, too - that makes a huge difference. Three hundred door busters is a record for us."
Kinsey said there are more items on sale and the prices are better, with small kitchen appliances on sale for less than $10. Kinsey said he expected jewelry and kitchen appliances - like crock pots and coffee makers - to have gains this year. Customers appeared to be proving the point as they had carts loaded down with boxes of crock pots and kitchen appliances along with other basics like towels. Kinsey said the rebound of jewelry, a luxury item in people's budgets, is a sign consumers are feeling more optimistic and the economy is getting better.
"We're expecting a strong gain," Kinsey said. "In 16 years of retail this is the most excited I've ever been since back-to-school time. The feeling has been great here."
In talking with competitors, Kinsey said he knows others are also doing well. A sign of the change is visible in the hiring. Last year, J.C. Penney hired 17 people for the holiday push. This year, the company hired 27.
Kinsey said: "The whole mood, the whole feel just seems a lot better this year."
RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5852.
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