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NAPLES — Shoppers left the Thanksgiving turkey and mashed potatoes in the refrigerator Friday and warmed up to holiday shopping.
After opening their doors before dawn for Black Friday, the traditional start of the holiday shopping season, a handful of store managers across Southwest Florida were happy by mid-afternoon to report crowds and sales on par or larger than 2008.
“I think we were all a little apprehensive about how we were going to go,” said Anthony Price, operations manager at Bass Pro Shops in the Gulf Coast Town Center in south Lee County.
Few shoppers said they were concerned about contracting swine flu standing in line next to strangers and grabbing for items once inside the stores.
It was full speed ahead at Miromar Outlets, which opened at midnight with some stores opening Thursday night and staying open nearly 24 hours, said general manager Jeff Staner.
Staner said all indications — overflowing parking lots, traffic backed up for a half-mile on Interstate 75 and shoppers carrying multiple bags — point to record numbers.
“I think people have been cooped up all year,” Staner said. “Now they want to spend their money.”
The big number that mattered to Price, at Bass Pro Shops, was 8,000 — the number of people who had come through the doors by 2 p.m. Friday after the store’s 6 a.m. opening.
Big sellers were items that were on sale, Price said, including jeans, GPS units and an electric smoker.
“We’re having an awesome day,” Price said Friday afternoon. “We’re still slammed.”
Across the nation, analysts will study Black Friday for clues that consumers, who drive 70 percent of all U.S. economic activity, are ready to start spending again.
“What’s at stake here is our perception of the economic recovery,” said National Retail Federation spokesman Scott Krugman.
Last year, for the first time since the federation began tracking holiday spending in 1992, sales for the season fell 3.4 percent versus an average gain of 3.4 percent per season over the 10 prior years, Krugman said.
Lynn Franco with the Conference Board, a consumer research group, expects 2009 holiday sales to be close to last year’s $442 billion.
This year, expectations are low as the latest economic reports offer conflicting signals.
At J.C. Penney, in Coastland Center mall in Naples, an estimated 2,000 people were waiting outside when the doors opened at 4 a.m., store manager Bob Ricketts said.
He said it took 15 or 20 minutes for the crowd to file through the doors.
Shoppers focused on mid-priced items such as household goods, clothes and jewelry, he said.
“It’s been kind of a basic year,” Ricketts said.
“I think it’s definitely more practical gifts this year,” said Stephanie Adams, who was shopping for clothes at J.C. Penney.
Carol Curto, store manager at Kohl’s in North Naples, said there was a rush to the clothing departments when the doors opened at 4 a.m.
“People are buying apparel and shoes, things that are quite interesting to me because those aren’t the typical items that we focus on when we open the doors at 4 a.m,” she said.
At Best Buy on Naples Boulevard in North Naples, Lisa Obisa was first in line with her boyfriend.
“I’m buying a lot less this year than last year,” she said, adding that money is tight.
By 7 a.m., the lines at Best Buy in Coconut Point Mall were gone. Store manager Scott Dowen said the store had sold out of one hot item this holiday season —notebooks — but still had flat screen TVs.
Fort Myers residents and friends Jennifer Lucas and Lynn Skorniak said they found good bargains at Coconut Point Mall. This was Skorniak’s first Black Friday, and she weighed saving money verses sleep. Both mothers said they were concerned about swine flu.
“I figure that shopping is no more of a risk than school,” Skorniak said.
Shopping at the Mercato, Becky Otterbeck said she would still spend about the same amount of money on holiday gifts for her children and seven grandchildren.
“It’s hard to cut down, but it will be more practical things,” she said.
At the Wal-mart Super Center on Collier Boulevard in East Naples, Scott Selznick was looking for a laptop. Was he worried about swine flu among the throng of shoppers?
“Nah. I work in the restaurant business,” he said. “I figure if anyone is going to get it, I am.”
Ramon and Maria Pereda arrived at the North Naples Super Wal-mart off Immokalee Road at 2:30 a.m. with their children. They were hoping to score a $199 laptop. No dice.
“We didn’t even get to see them,” Maria Pereda, 46, said.
(Naples Daily News reporters Eric Staats, Jenna Buzzacco-Foerster, Tracy X. Miguel, and Elysa Baptista and the Associated Press contributed to this report.)