While Black Friday may have lost some of its frenzy of years past, it is far from dead, judging by the hundreds of shoppers who swarmed through Twin Cities store aisles when doors opened as the sun went down Thanksgiving night.

As the crowd grew to hundreds outside the Best Buy store at Ridgedale in Minnetonka, with the line snaking around the parking lot, CEO Hubert Joly said that while earlier sales and online sales have spread out some of the shopping, Black Friday is still a big deal.

“Black Friday is still a huge, huge event,” he said. “It remains one of the biggest days of the year.”

It was much the same as the sun was coming up Friday.

At the Mall of America, shoppers queued up around a brightly-lit space around the north entrance, where a fleet of smiling “ambassadors” from Hulu served up coffee and hot chocolate and offered to stand in line for anyone who wanted to duck into one of its two buses to warm up.
 
The nation’s largest mall stayed closed for Thanksgiving, but throngs began arriving after turkey dinner. Though temperatures were mild by Minnesota standards, Hulu provided propane heaters and offered blankets for those who wanted to lounge on sofas and giant bean-bag chairs around giant TV screens.
 
Kyle Turner of St. Paul arrived at 7:30 p.m. Thanksgiving with a group of 20 family members, and secured a spot near the front. “We’re here for anything and everything,” he said, waving as the mall doors opened promptly at 5 a.m.
 
Allison Novak of Downers Grove, Ill., stood close to the parking lot and surveyed the sea of people in front of her. Her mood? “Determined.”
 
Teaming up with her sister-in-law, Marissa McGann of Maple Grove, Novak had done a Thanksgiving eve retail sweep that included stops at Target, Walmart and Kohl’s. The rest of the family was home sleeping as they queued up at the megamall.
 
“It’s all about the experience,” McGann said.
 
This is the second year that the Bloomington mall  has stayed closed on Thanksgiving Day. This year it also is offering holiday pay to its 1,200 workers, describing Black Friday as “the seventh holiday of the year.” Even as many retailers release doorbuster sales days in advance and more shoppers look for online bargains, the day-after Thanksgiving remains one of the busiest shopping days of the year for brick-and-mortar retailers.
 
With more online options, malls are putting more emphasis on creating an experience. Santa and an ebullient cast of elves scurried about a cluster of lighted trees as shoppers poured through the doors at the Mall of America. The first 200 people scored gift cards of $10 to $500, as well scratch-cards for prizes.
 
Brian Williams drove up from Northfield with two buddies and arrived just before midnight to become one of the first through doors at the Mall of America. He scratched off a $50 gift card, which he planned to promptly redeem.
 
“It’s our first time here,” he said. “We’re ready to go.”
 
Ryan Debois of Maple Grove, was first in line on a skyway entrance on the west side, and planned to head straight to Best Buy for a deal on a Sharp TV after spending the night on the hard concrete floor.
 
“You can’t get these deals online,” he said. “You gotta be here.”

It’s also become an even bigger day for online sales now that consumers have caught on to the fact that retailers put most of their doorbuster deals online earlier in the day, if not days in advance.

Some retailers, including Best Buy, had trouble handling the crush of traffic on their websites as their deals went live after midnight. Some shoppers initially complained on social media about having trouble checking out on Bestbuy.com, but there weren’t any major issues as the day went on.

For Target, products such as the Apple Watch, iPads, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch and Dyson vacuums were some of the most popular items online Thursday, said company spokeswoman Katie Boylan.

Despite the healthy online sales, plenty of people still showed up at many stores, drawn by deals they couldn’t always get online, family traditions, and sometimes boredom after being at home all day.

Kim Lucarelli of Delano had tried to get a PlayStation 4 for her sons on Target.com earlier in the day, but the website appeared to be out of them and directed her to come to stores to snag one. An avid Black Friday shopper, she didn’t mind, and brought along her sons.

“I think it’s fun,” she said, noting that she had started with her sister at Macy’s 5 p.m. opening to pick up makeup and bedding before heading over to Target’s 6 p.m. opening. “It’s not just about the [item], but about being out and around people — and the hunt.”

Chrissi McShane, store manager of the Ridgedale Target, wondered if the fact that the store was closing this year at midnight, instead of staying open all night as it has in previous years, helped bolster crowd sizes at its initial opening.

“The crowd is bigger than it was last year,” she said.

Some shoppers and store managers also wondered if the mild weather may have lured more people out.

“I prefer going to the stores,” said Kalai Palanisamy of Chanhassen as she left Best Buy with a wireless router in hand. “Online is fine, but sometimes it takes too long” to get the items, she said.

‘Thing of the past’?

While stores were hopping on Thanksgiving and were expected to be busy on Black Friday, the crowds were not expected to be as thick as in previous years.

Last year, a survey for the National Retail Federation found that more people shopped online than in stores over Black Friday weekend. And an analysis by the NPD Group’s Checkout Service found that shoppers visited stores less on Thanksgiving and Black Friday in 2016 than they had in the previous year.

“The in-store rush of crowds we typically associate with key holiday shopping days has become a thing of the past,” said Marshal Cohen, NPD’s chief industry analyst.

About 69 percent of Americans, or 164 million people, were thinking about shopping over this holiday weekend sometime between Thanksgiving and Cyber Monday, according to an NRF survey.

About 20 percent, or 32 million, were planning to shop on Thanksgiving. Black Friday, which is still often the biggest shopping day of the year, was expected to be the busiest day of the weekend. About 43 percent planned to shop Saturday, which has been branded Small Business Saturday to highlight local independent businesses. And Cyber Monday was expected to draw 48 percent of shoppers.

Meanwhile, 31 percent of Americans said they would avoid shopping this weekend altogether. And for the second year in a row, Mall of America and Burnsville Center stayed closed on Thanksgiving.

‘It’s not a dogfight’

Before he became CEO of Best Buy, Joly had never shopped on Black Friday, so he didn’t know what to expect, he said.

“What I have discovered is that this is a lot of fun,” he said. “You see these families come to the stores. The thing I’m very proud of is it’s not only fun at Best Buy, but it’s also very civilized. There is a lot of people in our stores, [but] it’s not a dogfight.

“So you can bring the kids. You can bring Grandma. They’re not going to be run over like in some other places.”

Not everyone shopping Thursday night was looking for big deals on TVs and video game consoles.

One of the only people in the produce section of the Ridgedale Target was Dan Thompson of St. Louis Park. He needed more lemons for a recipe he wanted to make for company coming the next day. And his blender was broken.

“It’s kind of surreal,” he said as he observed the crowds, having never shopped on Thanksgiving night before. “I picked the wrong night.”

But he did get a good price on the blender.