GeGe Williams joined 18 family members Thursday for a sprawling Thanksgiving feast of turkey, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, seafood rice, stuffing and banana pudding.
They had to eat quickly. It was 11 a.m., and they wanted to get in line to shop.
“Half of us went to Walmart and half of us came here,” Williams, a fast-food cashier from Miami, said shortly before 6 p.m. from a bench outside the Best Buy at the Dadeland Station Mall.
Williams joined tens of thousands of South Florida residents in condensing or abandoning their Thanksgiving routines Thursday to snag bargains reserved for the earliest of holiday shoppers.
At a Doral Toys R Us, more than 300 people waited in line for an 8 p.m. opening, the earliest yet for a store that four years ago kept closed through Thanksgiving. But with more retailers seeing midnight openings on Friday too long a wait for holiday sales, Toys R Us opted to move its "door buster" frenzy into Thanksgiving evening.
The earlier opening brought Rebecca Sucarino to Toys R Us at 10 a.m. to claim the first spot in line. The insurance specialist was joined by her husband and friends, while her three children ate Thanksgiving with Sucarino’s mother.
This is Sucarino’s third year at the front of the line on Thanksgiving at the same Toys R Us. She’s on the hunt for baby clothes and a $100 trampoline selling for $50.
She said she’s happy to be able to afford a big Christmas haul for her three kids (ages 11, 3 and six months) but does regret having to stake out a store on Thanksgiving.
“This is my son’s first Thanksgiving. It bothers me a lot,” she said. “But it feels good to get the kids a lot of toys and not spend as much.”
While the Toys R Us line grew throughout the evening, the second group of shoppers didn’t show up until around 5 p.m.
Such was the luck of Thanksgiving Day shopping, with some die-hards realizing they had arrived hours or even days earlier than they needed to.
At a Doral Best Buy, Valentina Sierra stood by a tent she and a fellow Starbucks worker pitched there on Monday. When did the people that snagged Spot No. 2 arrive? Wednesday, Sierra said, rolling her eyes.
She planned on buying a $499 40-inch Toshiba television on sale for $179 as a gift for her parents. About 40 spots down a line topping 200 around 7 pm, Florida International University student Jason Kalil wanted the same item. He wasn’t hopeful and blamed local police.
Kalil explained he arrived around midnight and placed his tent near Sierra’s. While charging a phone Thursday morning, Kalil saw someone had inserted their tent, claiming improper dibs on Kalil’s part. A scuffle ensued, the police summoned.
“They ordered me to the back of the line,” Kalil said.
Nationwide, a similar shopping story unfolded as shoppers put down the turkey to take advantage of Thanksgiving deals.
Stores typically open in the wee hours of the morning on the day after Thanksgiving that’s named Black Friday because that’s when stores traditionally turn a profit for the year. But Black Friday openings have crept earlier and earlier over the past few years. Now, stores are opening their doors on Thanksgiving evening, hoping Americans will be willing to shop soon after they finish their pumpkin pie.
Retailers are hoping that the Thanksgiving openings will draw shoppers who prefer to head to stores after their turkey dinner rather than braving the crowds early the next morning. Overall, about 17 percent of shoppers plan to take advantage of Thanksgiving hours, according to an International Council of Shopping Centers-Goldman Sachs survey of 1,000 consumers.
The Thanksgiving hours are an effort by stores to make shopping more convenient for Americans, who still face economic uncertainty.
The National Retail Federation, an industry trade group, estimates that overall sales in November and December will rise 4.1 percent this year to $586.1 billion, or about flat with last year’s growth. But the online part of that is expected to rise 15 percent to $68.4 billion, according to Forrester Research.
As a result, brick-and-mortar retailers are trying everything they can to lure consumers into stores by making shopping as easy as possible. In addition to expanding their hours into Thanksgiving, many are offering free layaways and shipping, matching the cheaper prices of online rivals and updating their mobile shopping apps with more information.
While shoppers took advantage of the Thanksgiving deals, some workers protested the Turkey Day hours and other issues.
At the Miami Gardens Walmart at 17650 NW Second Ave., about 75 people protested with signs and a band from the nearby sidewalk. The collection of worker advocates, faith leaders and Walmart employees chanted “Walmart respect us” and “Workers united will never be defeated.”
"I’m just proud of everyone being out here as one," said Elaine Rozier, 50, who works at another Miami-Dade Walmart. Then she pointed at the building and said, "We are here for them."
Chris Powell, 23, an overnight stocker at the store, joined the protest before his shift began, clad in Walmart’s signature blue shirt and khakis. "I wish they would treat the employees as well as they treat customers," he said.
The local protest was part of a nationwide demonstration against Walmart, the world’s largest retailer. Workers spoke out about insufficient hours, low wages and about the early start of Black Friday sales, which they say keeps them from being able to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with family.
Many of Walmart’s stores are open 24 hours, but the company is offering early bird specials that once were reserved for Black Friday at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving instead.
The issue is part of a broader campaign against the company’s treatment of workers that’s being waged by a union-backed group called OUR Walmart, which includes former and current workers. The group is staging demonstrations and walkouts at hundreds of stores on Black Friday.
But retailers say they are giving shoppers what they want. Dave Tovar, a Walmart spokesman, said that the discounter learned from shoppers that they want to start shopping right after Thanksgiving dinner. Then, they want to have time to go to bed before they wake up to head back out to the stores.
Still, Tovar said that Walmart works to accommodate its workers’ requests for different working hours. "We spent a lot of time talking to them, trying to figure out when would be the best time for our events," he said.
Miami Herald reporters Elaine Walker and Diana Moskovitz contributed to this story.