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Black Friday holiday shopping becomes a marathon

Shoppers racing to the finish line of the holiday shopping season had better train for a marathon.

Many major U.S. retailers stayed open for more than 24 hours on Thanksgiving Day through late Black Friday night, and crowds formed early and often over the two days in South Florida and across the nation.

Indeed, this season may mark the year when Thanksgiving was forgotten, and the traditional start of the holiday shopping season transformed into a two-day affair.

Some malls and stores experienced lulls in the action in the early hours of Friday morning. Just a few years ago, 8 a.m. ushered in door-buster mania. But with many retailers opening on Thanksgiving, the Friday morning hours brought quiet at Target, Lowes, Best Buy and The Sports Authority in Hialeah, before business picked up again in the afternoon.

Inside Target, the only line was in the camera department for a $449 Canon T3. Disassembled construction-grade barricades in front of the store were the only signs of the crowds that had swarmed hours earlier.

At the Aventura Mall at 6 a.m. on Friday morning, there seemed to be more employees than customers in many stores. And some mingling customers had spent all night at the mall.

Sisters Claudia and Andrea Gomez, 14 and 13, of North Miami, arrived at 1 a.m. Friday and hit Forever 21, Lids, Hot Topic and American Eagle. They took a pizza break at Sbarro at 4 a.m.

“If we fell asleep, we wouldn’t get up,” said Andrea on her early-early arrival.

Across South Florida, stores and malls opened earlier than ever on Thanksgiving, many by 6 p.m. and nearly all by 8 p.m. Shoppers skipped or delayed their turkey dinners to wait in long lines.

Hundreds of shoppers snaked around Toys “R” Us in South Miami-Dade and Best Buy in Westchester before the stores threw open their doors at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., respectively.

“It’s been steady the whole way through,” said Frank Escobar, Best Buy’s district manager for Miami and Puerto Rico, late Friday afternoon, after the district’s 11 stores in Miami-Dade had been open nearly 24 hours straight. But it’s still too early to tell how the season will shape up, he said.

Walmart in Doral, the chain’s largest-volume store nationwide, reported 18,000 transactions on Thursday, up 36 percent from last year. “Whole families came in,” said Jaime Escalona, the Doral Walmart’s co-manager.

The store stayed open all day on Thanksgiving, and staff had to close the doors at 7:30 p.m. because of the crowds, allowing only a few dozen people to enter at a time, he said. That led to a line with more than 300 people.

On Friday, sales at the store were up 45 percent by 4 p.m., compared to the same time last year, Escalona said. Top sellers were electronics and toys.

At Miami’s Mall of the Americas on Friday afternoon, the biggest draw was electronics giant Tiger Direct.

“I don’t know if my rope is long enough,” said Alfredo Sanchez, an electronics dealer from Maracaibo, Venezuela, as he tried to tie down three 51-inch Samsung televisions on top of his Honda Insight. “The deals weren’t as good as last year,” he said, “but it is still a lot cheaper than in my country.”

Sanchez plans to resell the TVs at a large profit in Venezuela where, he said, the price could fetch more than three times as much.

The check-out lines inside Tiger Direct wound from the front of the store all the way to the back, as the manager scurried to keep everything moving. “This is awesome,” said Roberto Claro, the store manager, who could not say whether sales, so far, were higher than last year.

Those in line looked fatigued, but remained patient.

“We are planning to spend a lot more than last year,” said Patrick Boza, an engineer, who flew from Caracas with his wife at 10 a.m. on Friday, just to come to Tiger Direct. “We are buying as many Garmin Nuvi GPSs as we can get our hands on.” He said he plans to resell his gear when he gets back to Venezuela.

For nearly a decade, Black Friday had been the official start of the shopping season between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It was originally named Black Friday because it was when retailers turned a profit, or moved out of the red and into the black. Retailers opened early and offered deep discounts.

The busiest time of the holiday season is actually the weekend before Christmas, according to Rick McAllister, chief executive of the Florida Retail Federation. Thanks to a boom in visitors statewide, he predicts a 4.5 percent jump in revenue this holiday season, outpacing the nation.

Yet many in South Florida vowed to stay away from stores and malls on Thanksgiving, in reverence to the holiday and with sympathy for those who had to work.

In other parts of the nation, the Thanksgiving shopping rush sparked incidents of violence. Despite Miami’s passion for shopping, no major incidents seem to have occurred in South Florida.

In Romeoville, Ill., police shot a suspected shoplifter in the shoulder late Thursday night after the car he was driving dragged an officer through the parking lot of a Kohl’s department store.

In Las Vegas, a shopper was shot in the leg during a struggle with thieves who tried to take the TV he had just purchased in a Black Friday sale at Target, as he was carrying it to a nearby apartment complex. A police officer in Rialto, Calif., suffered a fractured hand and finger after responding to an assault in the parking lot of a Walmart just after the sales started Thursday.

And in New Jersey, a Walmart shopper was arrested after becoming belligerent and attacking a police officer inside a store in Garfield, police said. Several officers subdued a 23-year-old suspect and took him to jail. Officers also ticketed a 29-year-old woman who spit on another woman’s child during an argument over infant clothing at the same store, police said.

Those who eschewed stores on Friday found early discounts online. Even that required patience.

Some of the largest retailers’ websites suffered slowdowns due to heavy volume.

Sears’ website was so clogged that shoppers had to wait well over an hour at times to get into the site, as a notice flashed “Our site is super busy, but we’ll get you to in just a moment.” To help entertain customers waiting to get on, the site flashed little trivia factoids, like the fact that Canada is the largest exporter of Christmas trees.

Walmart’s site was also a challenge most of the day; it was hit or miss getting past the Black Friday ad in order to search and shop. Target and Best Buy appeared to be trouble free. Many of the websites offered the same deals, if not better, online, along with free shipping and the ability to read customer reviews on their products.

Paypal, which processes 20 percent of all global e-commerce, said Miami was the top city from Thursday through early Friday for mobile purchases.

Overall, Paypal said global mobile payment volume rose 124 percent from 2 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Black Friday, compared to last year.

Cyber Monday promises to bring even more deals after the flurry of weekend sales. In a Visa survey, 34 percent of shoppers plan to buy on Cyber Monday.

“I am monitoring Amazon now for games,” said Bobby Smith, 13, of Miami, who hopes to score a deal on Cyber Monday. “If my parents let me, I want to buy Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty.”

The Associated Press, Reuters, Miami Herald reporter Julie Brown and writers Beth Kleinman and Melody Kleinman contributed to this report.