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Black Friday deals more to shoppers than just discounts

With promotions starting earlier each year, one analyst says he's been asked: "Is Black Friday relevant

From left, Lance Sugarman and his wife, Blair, are dressed up in the Christmas spirit as they shop with their children, Cooper, 6, and Paisley, 4, on Black Friday at Cherry Hill Mall in Cherry Hill, N.J., on Friday, Nov. 23.
From left, Lance Sugarman and his wife, Blair, are dressed up in the Christmas spirit as they shop with their children, Cooper, 6, and Paisley, 4, on Black Friday at Cherry Hill Mall in Cherry Hill, N.J., on Friday, Nov. 23.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Nicole Heistand, 32 of Coatesville, sat behind a mini-fort made of alternating red-and-green rubber Legos, and played peek-a-boo while her 18-month-old son, Jaxon Kubeck, ran in and out, smiling and laughing.

The family doesn't usually go to the mall on Black Friday, but at 12:30 p.m. Friday they were inside Plymouth Meeting Mall at the Legoland Discovery Center. Heistand's stepbrother, John Lombardi, 33, of Cleveland, joined in with his wife, Sarah, 31, and their 15-month-old son, Frankie. The grandparents also played with the boys throughout the center.

"It's been unreal. I mean, this place is incredible. … It's been a lot of fun for him," John Lombardi said, adding that on Black Friday "we'll probably end up picking up a few things on the way out, since we are here."

Jaxon and Frankie were just two of the many kids running around the holiday-theme Legoland, past the sleigh, the snowman-building area on an "earthquake" table, and the Lego replica of Philadelphia. The boys' fun was part of a trend among visitors to the nation's malls.

Instead of being out for deals, many of the people at the malls or on city streets went out on Black Friday for fun experiences, whether taking pictures with holiday decorations, visiting entertainment-oriented sites, or just spending time with family and friends on a day off.

"We're definitely busier than a normal Friday," said Michael Taylor, general manager of the Plymouth Meeting Legoland. "People are in good spirits coming here."

For traditional retailers at Plymouth Meeting Mall, where almost half of the space is devoted to non-retail attractions, the day was not as merry, as measured by the crowds. "The parking lot is very packed, but inside is manageable," Anne Pomager, 45, of Plymouth Meeting, said outside 5 Wits, an interactive escape room inside the mall.

Pomager and her sister-in-law Jennifer Pomager, 42, were waiting for their families to finish going through the "tomb"-theme escape room. They don't usually shop on Black Friday, but came to Plymouth Meeting Mall for an activity with their kids, all 12 and younger. Last year, they went to Legoland.

"We're trying to give them adventures," said Jennifer Pomager, of Spring City.

Not that shopping is completely passé.

"The sport of shopping continues to live on Black Friday, in part because families are together, people are together, and they're not working. … It's a free day to do something, and one of those things to do is go shop,"  said Steven H. Gartner, executive vice president of global retail services at CBRE Inc. "There's a convivial nature to shopping on Black Friday."

That was the case with three friends who know each other through work at Lockheed Martin. They started the day with breakfast at the Phily Diner in Runnemede and had arrived at Cherry Hill Mall by 6:30 a.m. They were taking a break just after noon near Nordstrom.

"We've already brought packages to the car four times." said Karen Schiavo of Bellmawr.

"I look for deals," said Grace O'Connor, 60, of West Deptford, who had brought along two of her granddaughters.

She said Black Friday is not only about bargain-hunting, but tradition as well."It starts the holiday season. It gets you in the spirit," she said.

"You can do a lot of shopping online, but I like to see the merchandise," said Joann Dewey, 55, of Mount Laurel.

Some shoppers, out for deals, found only frustration in Center City.

"We expected bigger Black Friday" deals, said Berta Diaz, 22, a native of Barcelona, Spain, who was in Philadelphia as part of a four-city tour of the United States with her friend Marina Monte, 20, also of Barcelona. "I find same sales as usual, everyday."

Diaz was on the hunt for affordable sneakers. But so far, the shoe stores she had visited in Philadelphia disappointed.

There was no disappointment among a crew of four Black Friday shoppers —  Macy's bags by their feet and coffee in hand — who sat around a circular table at the King of Prussia Mall to refuel before 8 a.m.

They had been out since 2 a.m. — a yearly tradition — and the group planned to keep going until lunch time or until someone tapped out from pure exhaustion. Christine McCormick, 31, of Valley Forge, said she doesn't go to New York with her husband for Thanksgiving because of Black Friday plans with her two friends and her mother. "The holy day is Friday here," she said.

As the group talked about Black Friday adventures and the hours-long search for gifts and deals, Erin Morgan, 31, of Phoenixville, said she doesn't usually buy much and Donna McCormick, 65, of Drexel Hill, said retailers offered better bargains in years past. Yet they still came out to stores.

"For me, it's more about the tradition," said Linda Kampes, 31, of Fishtown. "It's kind of nice to know that this day, every year, that I get to see my girls and hang out … pull an all-nighter [and] drink an insane amount of caffeine."