First the meal, then the deals

For Joshua and Kristen Foutz of Gaston, it’s all about being first.

For seven years, the couple has lined up at the Harbison Best Buy on Black Friday — the traditional start of the Christmas shopping season — to snap up deals on electronics. They started well back of the line, then each year arrived a little earlier.

This year, with the store opening at 6 p.m. Thanksgiving, they arrived at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, complete with tent, lounge chairs and a 30,000-BTU heater.

“I just came here as early as possible,” Kristen Foutz said. “It was about 20 hours before anyone else showed up.”

Black Friday — which used to be relegated to the early morning hours of the day after Thanksgiving — has morphed in the past few years into a two-day shopping bonanza.

And it starts before the turkey and stuffing settle in your stomach.

Merchants, desperate to attract shoppers in an increasingly digital world, are opening earlier than ever this year, and some are offering multiple deal-buster start times. A National Retail Federation survey showed fewer people — 140 million — planned to shop over the four-day weekend this year vs. the 147 million who planned to shop in 2012.

But interest is still high among avid deal hunters.

Greta Cross was first in line at Toys R Us across the street from Best Buy. She showed up at 2 p.m. for the store’s 5 p.m. opening to buy about $300 worth of toys for less fortunate children at her church, Oak Grove Baptist.

But that was just the start of her evening. The Polaroid Tablet she wanted to buy for her daughter Destiny didn’t go on sale for $39.99 until 5 a.m. Friday.

“So I’ll be here all night,” she said. “But I won’t stay here the whole time. I’ll walk around to different stores.”

Over at the 24-hour Walmart, people lined up down the aisles in front of pallets full of everything from televisions to George Foreman Grills to Garth Brooks boxed CD sets waiting on the 6 p.m. start of the sales.

Dozens of employees sporting yellow paper Walmart smocks directed traffic and handed out numbers for big-ticket items. All had cut their Thanksgivings short or planned to feast in the evening after work.

For 16-year veteran employee Pam Gaines, it wasn’t the ideal way to spend the holiday.

“But it’s retail,” she said with a shrug. “It’s the way it is.”