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Expecting 40 guests for Thanksgiving dinner at her Council Bluffs home, Cindy Walker put three turkeys in electric roasters at 6:30 a.m. Thursday.
But at 8 a.m., she and husband Jeff, ready for a break from the kitchen, were at Bass Pro Shops in Council Bluffs.
“This is our calm before the storm, some quiet time for us,” said Cindy Walker, 46, as she looked through a pile of pink sweatshirts, priced at $10. “We'll probably spend an hour here and go home.”
Right around the time Bass Pro closed Thanksgiving Day at 6 p.m., managers and employees at the Toys R Us store at 115 N. 76th St. in Omaha were prepping their store for an 8 p.m. opening. A line of eager customers stretched around the store, numbering 300 to 400 by the time the doors opened. Some had arrived at 4 p.m.
From morning to evening Thursday, people turned out at stores, fitting shopping in around traditional Thanksgiving activities. Bass Pro, Kmart and some other retailers have had Thanksgiving Day hours before, but this year several other major retailers — including Walmart, Target and Shopko — also offered earlier or extended Thanksgiving Day shopping hours.
An estimated 41 million people planned to shop on Thanksgiving, up from 29 million last year, according to a survey by the International Council of Shopping Centers and Goldman Sachs. Black Friday's turnout is expected to top 80 million, the survey said.
“It's girls' night out, and we're here for deals,” said Julie Carper of Omaha, who was joined by three friends in the Toys R Us line.
“It's an annual thing” said Carper, the mother of two. “The kids are home with their dads.”
“It's an adrenalin rush,” said Michelle Wieck, who stood next to Carper. “There are things I want, and those people up there,” she said, pointing to the head of the line, “are my competition.”
Early Friday, Omaha police reported to two shopping malls reportedly because of crowd-related problems.
Officers were called to Westroads Mall around 1 a.m. Friday after shoppers or store employees called 911 to report hearing gunfire.
Other shoppers called Omaha media outlets to say they were hiding in bathrooms and panicking because they’d lost touch with their kids or other shopping companions.
Omaha police officer James Shade said there was a fight between early Black Friday shoppers, but no shots were fired. He said shoppers heard the sound of trash cans being knocked over. One person was arrested for disorderly conduct.
And later, police were called to Oakview mall near 144th Street and West Center Road, also because of a disturbance.
A rumor perpetuated on Facebook early Friday that security tazed an Oakview customer and that the mall was locked down was false.
Mall spokesman Ted Harris said overnight a shoplifter who was detained by security sprayed pepper spray into the air. Harris said no one was hit by the spray and the mall was operating as usual. The shoplifter was removed from the mall.
Around 6 a.m. this morning, customers were streaming into the mall and the parking lot near the mall entrances was full.
Omaha police said no arrests were made and nobody was arrested in both cases.
The earlier Black Friday deals mean working a holiday for the stores' employees.
At 7:50 p.m., a Toys R Us manager gave a pep talk: “The most important thing to do is smile. When our guests get up to the registers, they're going to be tired, they're going to be hungry — smile and check them out of here quickly.”
When the doors opened at exactly 8 p.m., the first shoppers filed in and workers cheered.
More than 12 hours earlier at Bass Pro, the doors opened with no lines, no faces pressed to the glass. But about 100 people filtered into the store in the first 10 minutes, said Frank Aultz, the store's greeter. It was like that most of the day. “Busier than a regular weekday,” merchandise manager Chris Ulane said.
The final preparation of the immense two-story store had begun in preceding days, when additional display carts were rolled out of storage and stocked.
The store's back room was stacked to the ceiling with boxes, containing clothing, fishing and hunting gear, meat grinders, food dehydrators, bows, watches, aluminum fish fryers and children's toys — from toy shotguns to Disney character tents.
And a tractor-trailer was backed up to the store's loading dock, waiting to have more Black Friday sales merchandise unloaded.
Store workers had been issued a cheat sheet, so they could direct customers to the holiday specials spread throughout the 130,000-square-foot store.
Duane Elbach, the Bass Pro store's general manager, arrived at 6:30 a.m. Thursday after working late Wednesday night. This year, Bass Pro's specials started on Wednesday, making it unclear what kind of crowd would be there on Thanksgiving.
Nevertheless, by 7 a.m., around the time a lot of people were putting turkeys in the oven, Bass Pro was abuzz with activity.
Store workers were cleaning the glass front doors, vacuuming the floors and, at Uncle Buck's, the store's restaurant and bar, manager Arlen Ellis had started chickens roasting. The maintenance man was working to override the store's lighting system, which is set to automatically turn the lights on an hour later.
A little after 7 a.m., Elbach began his walk-through. Sales had been brisk the night before and, although workers had spent an hour after the store closed tidying and restocking, it was his job to double-check everything.
“I just walk around to see the condition of the floor and make sure all the sizes are represented,” said Elbach, who has worked in the retail industry for 30 years.
As part of his routine, Elbach checked the store's indoor trout pond to make sure there were no floating fish to upset customers. Then he was off to the back of the store, which had been turned into a children's play area with tables set up for “the kids to write letters to Santa.”
Were the slot cars working? He squeezed the handle and watched the two cars race around the track. Satisfied, he moved on to the toy trains and watched them meander through a snow-covered model village.
“It's important that everything's working,” Elbach said. “People come in here to just watch the fish or to play with the trains.”
A few minutes later, Ulane joined Elbach in inspecting the store.
At 7:30, with the store's 40 workers staffing the fishing gear counter, the fudge stand, the customer service counter and other sections, Seth Boos, the store's footwear and gift manager, announced an employee meeting over the loudspeaker.
In a few minutes, everyone gathered in front of the fireplace next to the store's main entrance, where the department managers took turns praising workers for volunteering to work Thanksgiving.
Andrew Meadows, the store's receiving and loading manager, rallied the troops: “Let's have fun today. It's Thanksgiving. Woo-hoo! Just try to have fun.”
“I know it's a tough day to be here today,” added Ulane. “You've made a sacrifice. We do thank you.”
Shoppers repeatedly said they were grateful that Bass Pro was open.
The Thanksgiving hours gave Lisa Feigenbutz, of Oakland, Iowa, the chance to buy the hunting gear her kids wanted.
“I work full time, and I don't have Black Friday off,” she said.
Joe Giasson, 29, of Council Bluffs, who had just gotten off work — “I'm a fireman at the airport” — headed to Bass Pro and bought just what he needed to cook his holiday turkey: two gallon jugs of turkey frying oil and a Creole marinade. “It's a good thing they're open,” Giasson said.
- World-Herald Staff Writer Sarah Baker-Hansen contributed to this report.