Max Silva camped in a tent, waiting more than 24 hours outside the Best Buy in Westchester to nab a 50-inch Vizio TV for $600.
“I got scared that the line would end up all around the building,” said Silva, 24, of Southwest Miami-Dade, pointing to the queue that, in fact, grew several hundred-thick by sundown Thursday. “So thinking that, I got here early.”
When opening time came at 6 p.m., Sales Manager Robert Bell clapped his hands, yelling “Let’s go, baby, let’s go,” welcoming customers inside, amid the sounds of Christmas music.
Chaos quickly reigned, as customers jammed their carts, scurrying to find the hottest deals.
Carmen Rodriguez paid her nanny to wait in line starting at 11 a.m., relieving her for the last hour so could she snatch two Surface computers as gifts.
“I had Thanksgiving on Tuesday so I could come shopping today,” said Rodriguez, 51, of Coral Gables.
Alvaro Mendez, of Santa Cruz, Bolivia, came to Miami for his fifth holiday season, just to shop. He got in line at Best Buy at 9 a.m., nine hours before the store opened, in hot pursuit of computers and tablets to sell at his electronics store. Next, he planned to go to Target, Office Depot and Staples.
All around South Florida, stores and malls opened their doors on Thanksgiving to give shoppers an early start on holiday deals, slashing prices on top-selling electronics, toys and apparel.
No longer do bargain-hungry shoppers have to trudge to the mall at midnight, or wake up in the wee hours of Black Friday morning to snatch the best deals.
At the Aventura Mall at 6 Friday morning, there seemed to be more employees than customers in many stores. And some mingling customers 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.
Best deal, Andrea said: Hats (buy one, get one half off). The sisters also went to Sephora and bought a makeup kit with eye shadow and lip gloss for $25.
For the past several years, major retailers have pushed shopping hours earlier and earlier, crowding into the Thanksgiving holiday. This year, many moved from what had been seen as radically early times of midnight and 10 p.m. to as early as 5 p.m. Thursday as they compete for holiday revenues, which can account for 40 percent of a store’s annual sales.
Brittany Ramgeet skipped Thanksgiving dinner and passed the afternoon among more than 200 people in line at Toys “R” Us before the store opened at 5 p.m.
Inside, she got a LeapPad 2 tablet for her nephew, on sale for $39.99. Her next stop: Best Buy to get a Surface tablet for $199 and a Dell laptop for $179, then Target for a 50-inch TV for $229. Friday she plans to head to Dadeland Mall, all in search of gifts for her sisters, nieces and nephews.
“All my Christmas shopping is going to be done today and tomorrow,” said Ramgeet, 27, of Cutler Bay.
Allison Bayer went to Toys “R” Us seeking a Kindle Fire tablet for her seven-year-old son.
“It’s $179.99, so you save $90 and it comes with a $20 gift certificate, so why not, right?” said Bayer, 42, of South Miami, who has two sons.
“My kids are getting older, so they are more into the electronics things, so I’m spending more,” she said. “So when you spend more you want to get a good deal.”
Alexandra Barroso was on the hunt for gifts at Toys “R” Us for her two kids — and their friends.
“This is the time of year that I buy five gifts for boys and five gifts for girls, and I give them out throughout the year,” said Barroso, 41, of Coral Gables.
As sales took off on Thanksgiving, online shoppers could buy discounted items beginning in the morning or even earlier. In a shortened holiday season marked by six fewer days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and an early Hanukkah, many stores have offered sales for a week or longer.
Letizia Cianfano and Christophe Julliard flew all the way from Rome to Miami to hunt for bargains on Black Friday, and were delighted they could begin their quest on Thursday.
“We can find all the things, the clothes, very cheap,” said Cianfano, 44, who stopped at Victoria’s Secret in Miami Beach, before heading to Aventura Mall. She hoped to fill a suitcase with special finds for herself, her two daughters and a long list of friends and family who gave her their requests. “In Italy it is all very expensive.”
At Dolphin Mall, herds of cars stormed in from side streets, hopped curbs and jockeyed for parking spots.
A sea of shoppers wearing sweaters and heavy jackets clutched mall maps and coupons, and seemed to know exactly where they were going as they peered through the glass doors before the mall opened at 6 p.m.
“I am running straight to the Bose store,” said Norman Oldynov, 19, a student from Jakarta, Indonesia, who was the first in line at the mall. “I want the multimedia speaker system.”
The concept of Thanksgiving seemed foreign to many international visitors.
“This is just another day for us,” said Ricardo Arellan, 21, a student from Caracas, who huddled in line with his family at Dolphin Mall, before sprinting to the Sports Authority to buy a new pair of Nikes. “After that, I want to find a Samsung Galaxy.”
Dolphin Mall spokeswoman Madelyn Calvar said the shopping center was expecting more than 450,000 visitors over the weekend.
“As you can see, we are having massive sales,” she said.
Sawgrass Mills also opened at 6 p.m. and expected huge crowds through Friday. The mall offers free bag storage and a free shuttle, said Joellyn Fellmeth, regional director of marketing for Sawgrass Mills.
Still, many in South Florida vowed to stay away from the malls on Thanksgiving, displeased with the idea of shopping on the holiday. And across the nation, labor groups and others have protested against the early hours.
On Black Friday, shoppers will have plenty of more bargains to choose from, as many stores and malls will stay open until 10 p.m.
Kristen Vargas Vila plans to spend all of Friday at Dadeland Mall with her mom. It’s an annual mother-daughter tradition, Vargas Vila said. Her brothers are forbidden to join in.
“It’s fun, she said. “I love it.”
Beth Kleinman and Melody Kleinman contributed to this report.