Kathy Smith, director of marketing and business development at the King of Prussia mall, calls it the Black Friday "big money shot."
That scene news crews seek the day after Thanksgiving, long associated with the start of the Christmas shopping season.
But this year, in malls and other shopping venues across the region, the big money shot was elusive. Crazy-eyed shoppers, bruised from elbowing out other discount-seekers, their arms laden with shopping bags, were a rarity.
From Oxford Valley to Cherry Hill and King of Prussia on Friday, parking was not the frustrating circling-for-a-spot exercise it had been on Black Fridays past. As for long lines inside, most were at Starbucks, not the department stores. Those legendary they're-giving-the-stuff-away deals seemed to some holiday shoppers to be just that, legendary. Or at least a day too early.
Ever-expanding Thanksgiving Day retail opportunities have amounted to a Black Friday killjoy, many shoppers complained.
"It's so different this year," Jean MacIntyre, 55, of Millville, N.J., said Friday morning at Oxford Valley Mall, where she and a friend, Jobie Shomper, 63, of Philadelphia, showed up at 5 a.m. looking for bargains they never found.
"It sucked," Shomper said. "Everyone gave out all their deals on Thursday."
That was the impression Ali Hayes, 39, of Phoenixville; sister-in-law Priscilla Hayes, 44, of Westminster, Md.; and her niece Ali Schroeder, 24, of Baltimore, had by 8 a.m. as they hustled into Lord & Taylor at King of Prussia from a frosty parking lot, their heads warmed only by turkey headbands.
"It's our tradition every year that we go out on Black Friday, which is why we're upset about all the stores opening on Thanksgiving," Ali Hayes said. "Each holiday should have its own moment."
Their experience minutes earlier at a nearby Toys R Us: no great discounts, no crowds.
Just as the experts had predicted.
A recent survey of 100 retailers by BDO USA L.L.P., one of the world's largest accounting firms, found that while 64 percent planned on offering more sales and promotions this year than last year, more than one-third said the deals would come before Thanksgiving.
"By 2020, the official start to the holiday season may be in October," said Ted Vaughan, partner in BDO USA's retail and consumer products practice.
Overall, the survey respondents forecast a 2.4 percent increase in Black Friday sales.
At Oxford Valley, Jim Malervy, director of marketing, said he expected Black Friday sales to be up more than 5 percent from last year.
King of Prussia's Smith said 25 percent of the mall's nearly 400 stores remained open all night Thursday into Friday, despite a "soft closing" like Oxford Valley's at 1 a.m. (The malls, both owned by Simon Property Group, officially reopened at 6 a.m.)
The all-nighters - at such stores as Victoria's Secret, Forever 21, and H&M - were appealing to a certain demographic, namely millennials, Smith said.
"Eighty percent of the customers . . . here after midnight are under 30," she said.
Comparing this year's Black Friday sales to last year's will be difficult, Smith said, because business hours changed. Last year, King of Prussia opened at 8 p.m. Thanksgiving and stayed open all night.
At the Macy's there, store manager Amy Speece was encouraged by "very healthy" traffic.
"We expect to have a great holiday season," Speece said.
Over at Cherry Hill Mall, Megan Callahan, 14, of Marlton, was a testament to youthful stamina, having returned about 9:30 a.m. Friday after first arriving at 9 p.m. Thursday and staying until 3 in the morning.
She saw a dramatic difference between days.
"It was crazy last night," Callahan said. "There were a lot more lines . . . and everyone was taking people's carts. Now, traffic has died down a lot. Lines in most stores I've been in are about five to 10 minutes at most."
Lines were not long at the Kohl's in Exton Friday morning either - despite good deals that attracted Liz Schaeffer of Richboro and daughter Erika Mentrikoski of Exton. For them, Black Friday shopping is as much a holiday tradition as turkey and stuffing.
They eschew shopping on the holiday - "We stick with family," Mentrikoski said - though their system for attacking the stores by 5 a.m. begins as soon as the Thanksgiving dishes are cleared. They spread out two newspapers' worth of circulars on a big table.
"We've been going so long, we used to go to Clover," Schaeffer, 64, said, referring to the defunct discount chain.
Some Black Friday traditions are better left in the past.
This year, Hailey Fisher, 15, traveled nearly two hours with friends from Bel Air, Md., to do her Black Friday shopping at King of Prussia.
Last year, she was in a Victoria's Secret in Annapolis when a melee broke out.
"I was almost trampled to death for yoga pants," Fisher recalled. "This year, it's just been really chill and a lot of fun."
Perhaps not as laid-back as an inaugural shopping event in Conshohocken.
There, the owners of two-year-old Southern Cross Kitchen restaurant hosted "Christmas in Conshy," featuring local vendors' wares upstairs as brunch was served downstairs.
"There's no lines, there's plenty of parking, and," said co-owner Kim Strengari, "you can walk around with a mimosa in your hand."
Now there's a tradition worth fostering.
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