Black Friday was, by most accounts, mall madness.
The annual shopping tour de force began at 6 p.m. Thursday at the region's shopping meccas and big-box retailers. With unusually warm weather and retailers' deep discounts, the public's appetite to buy, peruse, or eat remained strong all day Friday, according to retailers and shoppers lugging bags full of purchases.
Long lines for parking spaces, restrooms, and checkout lanes didn't deter the crowds from steadily pouring into King of Prussia, Cherry Hill, Willow Grove Park, and Oxford Valley Malls. The crush was heaviest by midafternoon.
"Our hands are full, so it's time to go," said Mary Markert, 53, of Berwyn, who shopped at King of Prussia from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. with daughters Megan, 20, and Michelle, 17. The Markerts finished their day carrying a selection of shopping bags from Express, Uniqlo, H&M, Primark, Athleta, and Teavana, filled mostly with clothes for Christmas gifts.
Mary Markert said she didn't go shopping last year on Black Friday - the traditional start of the holiday shopping season - because she didn't "feel like fighting the crowds."
But the weather and her daughters, who wanted to go, were incentives this year. "It's crowded, but not overwhelming," Michelle Markert said.
Retail experts predict a modest increase of 2 percent to 3 percent in holiday spending this year, compared with 2014.
Eye on security
Retail analyst Jeff Green, president of Jeff Green Partners in Phoenix, said security concerns were on people's minds heading into the holiday shopping season after the Paris terrorist attacks two weeks ago.
"If there was any attack anywhere - and even worse, at a shopping mall - that could affect sales and keep people out of the mall, where they think something might happen," Green said.
The only fear Friday seemed to be how long it would take to snag a parking space. Motorists at King of Prussia and Cherry Hill were seen circling for a half-hour or more, shadowing shoppers to nab spots.
Kathy Smith, director of marketing and business development for King of Prussia Mall, owned by Simon Property Group, said that the mall saw an increase in Black Friday traffic of 10 percent from the same period a year ago.
Starting with Thanksgiving, sales got off to a good start, said Lisa Wolstromer, senior marketing director at Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, which owns Cherry Hill Mall.
"We were very busy," she said Friday. "A lot of the stores I talked to said sales have been very steady."
Last year, Cherry Hill Mall was open overnight. This year, Macy's and JCPenney stayed open, but the rest of the mall closed at midnight Thursday, because last year business did not warrant being open 24 hours, Wolstromer said.
The change didn't sit well with everyone - an indication that the public's desire to shop is stronger this holiday season.
"We're busy," said Anthony Archie, a store manager at Forever 21 at Cherry Hill Mall. "Black Friday started very well."
However, many shoppers at the store noted their disappointment with the mall's curtailed hours, Archie said. "A lot of customers were upset about that," he said.
At Gloucester Premium Outlets, a new outdoor mall in Blackwood, many shoppers walked around early Friday in the mild weather in light jackets or shorts.
"My son wanted to check out Black Friday," said Jeannine Stone, 40, of Turnersville, who was with son Kyle, 13. She bought Kyle a number of clothing items from Nike and Under Armour that were marked more than half off.
Meanwhile, Patricia Hobbib of Newtown was one of the early birds who hit the stores before sunrise. She started at Target, then went to Kohl's, both in Langhorne, all by 4 a.m. Friday.
"This is the way to go," Hobbib said, pushing a Kohl's cart filled to the brim with clothes and appliances.
"I didn't have to fight for a parking spot or wait in line too long," she said. "There were also less people in the stores." Hobbib also saved big bucks. She spent $677 but saved $1,214, according to her Kohl's receipt.
Although roughly half of holiday buying and browsing this year is expected to occur online, the head of the National Retail Federation said stores across the country were crowded Friday. Seasonal online sales got off to a fast pace on Thursday, too, said Matthew Shay, the federation's CEO.
"As early as the day before Thanksgiving, retailers rolled out the red carpet for their customers with uniquely timed offers on electronics, apparel, sporting goods, toys, and more," Shay said. "The excitement continued into Thursday as reports of long lines outside stores on Thanksgiving and Black Friday were matched by reports of record-breaking online sales.
"By the time Cyber Monday wraps up," Shay said, referring to the Monday after Thanksgiving, "retailers will have closed the books on another successful Thanksgiving weekend. But we know the holiday season is a marathon, not a sprint, as there are countless opportunities left for retailers through the end of December."
Consumers spent about $1.73 billion online on Thanksgiving, up 25 percent from last year, according to Adobe Systems Inc., a digital marketing firm. Almost 136 million people nationwide are expected to shop online or in bricks-and-mortar stores over the five-day holiday weekend, according to the National Retail Federation.
Rob and Holly Bennett and their three young children drove from Nazareth in the Lehigh Valley to King of Prussia Mall to visit Santa and buy a Christmas ornament on Black Friday. The trek has been a family tradition for 15 years.
The family arrived at 1 p.m. to shop, and went to Grand Lux Cafe for dinner about 4 p.m. They waited about 25 minutes for a table.
"With recent world events, I was like, maybe we shouldn't go this year," Holly Bennett said. "But Rob wouldn't have it. He said we couldn't let stuff like that stop us.
"We're glad to be here," she continued as they walked to their dinner table. "The weather's great and the mall's full. It's great to see so many people out. It shows we're staying strong [as a nation] and taking a stand against terrorism."
Another family kept tradition alive at Willow Grove Park, where Christmas music serenaded shoppers and signs outside stores advertised Black Friday deals.
Tony Wright, 68, of Harrisburg, and son Mark, 40, of Baltimore, were staying with relatives in Southampton for Thanksgiving. They got to the mall around 9 a.m., and had typed shopping lists in hand, crossing off gifts as they made purchases. They both will do a lot of holiday shopping online, too, but said going to the mall on Black Friday is an ritual for them stretching back at least 35 years.
"We spend time together and hang out," Tony Wright said. "We don't care about getting here at 6 a.m."