Football games and pumpkin pie weren't any match for holiday shopping bargains that drew thousands of Bay Area shoppers out of their homes on Thanksgiving and into stores for an all-nighter shopping spree that, after a short morning lull, set up area malls for a bustling Black Friday.
With no time to waste -- this year is the shortest holiday season in 11 years with just 26 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas -- shoppers hit the stores early and hit them hard. Bay Area consumers skipped Thanksgiving feasts to line up outside big-box stores and malls to kick off the earliest Black Friday shopping extravaganzas since the tradition began.
"We hosted Thanksgiving and our friends left at midnight. We put the kids to bed and said 'Let's go,'" said Sheryl Domingo of Belmont, who started her shop-till-you-drop Friday with a 3 a.m. trip to Target with her mother.
The early store openings this year -- with more retailers selling on Thanksgiving Day -- meant malls around the Bay Area were quiet early Friday, as shoppers went home for a nap or out to breakfast, but consumers were back in full force by late morning. The Thanksgiving Day kickoff may drive one of the busiest holiday shopping weekends ever, reversing earlier fears of a tough retail season.
Matt Ehrie, district vice president at Westfield Valley Fair in Santa Clara, said he expects traffic this year to beat last year, with shoppers taking advantage of extended store hours.
"It was very strong at opening at 8 p.m. and we had another surge around midnight. We had the most people between midnight and 2 a.m.," he said
Crystal Nguyen and Angelina Swenor, students at Oak Grove High School in San Jose, were curled up on a bench in front of Valley Fair waiting for a ride home Friday morning. Nguyen pointed to bags stuffed with items from Forever 21, Hot Topic and Disney Store and said, "We did an all-nighter."
And they had plenty of company. Up and down the Bay Area, shoppers forsook sleep in pursuit of big markdowns, and flooded big-box stores and shopping centers late Thursday. At Westfield Valley Fair in Santa Clara, a line of more than 100 people waited in front of Victoria's Secret at Valley Fair mall and cheered when the doors opened. Some customers waited three hours Thursday evening to nab deals at Juicy Couture at Livermore Premium Outlets. By 3 a.m., in Pleasanton's Stoneridge Mall, some shoppers slept while they clutched shopping bags. At the Best Buy in the McCarthy Ranch retail complex in Milpitas, a crowd of more than 1,000 lined up outside the consumer electronics store spanning nearly five city blocks.
Alexia Divittorio, sales manager at Best Buy in Santana Row, said this year was "really different."
Last year, she said, "people were camping out for hours before the store opened at midnight. But this year the store opened at 6 p.m. Thursday.
"People rushed over when they had their Thanksgiving dinner," packing the store until about 11 p.m., she said.
The shopping-and-turkey binge made for a quiet Friday morning, as bleary-eyed shoppers, some clutching coffee cups, made their way through Bay Area malls where lines had mostly disappeared and crowds had thinned by 7 a.m.
Shara Ertz, 18, a French exchange student living in Daly City, leaned wearily against the Express store window at Westfield San Francisco Center at about 7 a.m. -- she had started shopping Thursday at 8 p.m. and was ready to call it quits.
She had just one thing on her mind: "Just to go to my bed," she said.
Friends Nicholas Thi and Jonathan Romero were loaded up with bags from H&M and waiting for the CalTrain to start running so they could go home. They had left San Jose at 7 p.m. Thursday to shop all night in San Francisco.
"I'm so tired," Romero said.
Raymond Jaks of San Francisco waited in line outside Burberry at Livermore Premium Outlets while his girlfriend shopped at Kate Spade New York. Jaks was ready to go -- the couple was about eight hours into a shopping marathon that had started at midnight.
"I feel exhausted," Jaks said. "I'm not showing it, but I'm a little mad at my girlfriend."
In nearby Concord, Sun Valley Mall was bustling but it looked like any other regular weekend shopping day. The big crowds were on Thanksgiving night, when the mall -- for the first time -- opened at 8 p.m. and stayed open throughout the night. At 11 p.m. the mall was flooded with shoppers, said Kim Trupiano marketing director for the mall.
"What I saw was a lot of families," she said. "People ate dinner and then wanted to do something so they came out together to do some shopping."
But by 8 a.m., she said, people got tired and the crowds disappeared. But after a little rest and refueling, many of those shoppers returned to the stores, where they joined a fresh pack of shoppers and newly formed lines outside stores. Before noon, Valley Fair was once again wall-to-wall with shoppers. Mall managers and retailers were preparing for another wave of shoppers on Friday late afternoon, and strong sales throughout the weekend.
The early and successful shopping kickoff will likely help retailers hit their holiday sales targets.
"This holiday seems to have gotten off to an encouraging start," said Dave Ackerman, director of marketing at Livermore Premium Outlets. The shopping center's 2,300-space parking lot was nearing full before noon.
Michele Schembre, vice president and senior general manager at Westfield San Francisco Center, said the mall will close later on some evenings leading up to the holidays to give consumers as much time to shop as possible.
Cold temperatures didn't deter eager holiday shoppers in other parts of the country, with the National Retail Federation reporting strong turnouts on Thanksgiving evening, with many shoppers braving frigid temperatures to line up on retailer's sidewalks.
Retailers have to cram a lot of sales into a short window, with six fewer shopping days this season. The shortened calendar could cost retailers $1.5 billion in sales this year, according to Adobe (ADBE), because shoppers will make fewer trips to the stores and, with less time to plan for expensive purchases, many could settle for more practical gifts. Retailers are scrambling to prevent that shortfall -- many rely on the holidays for 40 percent of their annual business.
But many shoppers on Friday said they weren't out looking for gifts -- they were bargain hunting for themselves. Many of the bags that left stores on Friday will end up in shoppers' own closets rather than wrapped beneath the Christmas tree.
Michele Muhamedcani of Union City started shopping at 4 a.m. with a single mission: to buy herself a new wardrobe.
"I cleaned out my closet so now I've got to fill it up," she said.
Despite the early onslaught of sales this season -- some national retailers were pushing holiday deals in September -- and endless doorbusters, many shoppers said they were disappointed with the markdowns. Many who said they expected deals of 80 percent off were turned off by the 20 percent and 30 percent discounts they found.
"It's not the Black Friday we were expecting," said Gustavo Gomes, 16, and exchange student from Brazil studying in Alameda. "We are disappointed."
According to a survey from consulting and technology firm Accenture, consumers say discounts are the No. 1 driver of their purchase decision this holiday season -- more important than whether the recipient would actually like it.
Customers may have wanted bargains, but they also were not afraid to spend. The cash and plastic that exchanged hands on Friday gave no hint of the economic worry that has consumers outside the Bay Area spending more cautiously this holiday season. The area's strong housing recovery, high rate of income growth, string of initial public offerings from tech companies and the recent stock market surge is anticipated to drive many shoppers to spend freely in stores than in most other parts of the country.
The National Retail Federation predicts Americans will spend about $738 on holiday gifts this year, about 2 percent less than last year and the first per-person spending decline since 2009.
On Friday morning, University of California at Berkeley student Arvind Nair had already far exceeded the expected national average for holiday spending, dropping about $3,000 on shirts, sweaters and a pair r of boots.
Edgar Gutierrez, who was visiting the Bay Area from Mexico, was surrounded by piles shopping bags as he took a break in the food court at Livermore Premium Outlets.
"We'll find out if we have the closet space when we get back home," he said.
San Francisco resident Karen Ramirez was on a Black Friday tour of the Bay Area with friends. By the time she made it to Livermore Friday, she had spent $2,000, mostly on shoes.
"We're a total mess," she said. "We waited two weeks to get paid today and it's gone in two hours." Staff writers Jeremy Thomas, Bonnie Eslinger, Peter Carey, Elisabeth Nardi and George Avalos contributed to this story.
Contact Heather Somerville at 510-208-6413. Follow her at Twitter.com/heathersomervil.