HOBART | Black Friday just isn't what it used to be.
In recent years, parking lots at Westfield Southlake mall and other shopping areas along the U.S. 30 retail corridor were full from storefronts to the street before the sun came up, with drivers circling lots in hopes of finding a parking space.
This year at 6 a.m., lots were about half to 2/3 full and stores and general areas at the mall were easy to maneuver. Traffic that once inched along U.S. 30 for miles approaching the mall area moved quickly and easily Friday morning.
Local police departments reported no major problems with traffic or shoppers related to Black Friday.
Many shoppers said they start their shopping on Thanksgiving now, going out after their meal. With stores opening anywhere from 8 p.m. Thursday to 6 a.m. Friday, consumers said, they are able to take their time at various stores with breaks to go home and sleep or get a bite to eat in between, rather than waiting for hours to enter one store for one deal. E-commerce growth is also changing consumer spending patterns.
Sherri Martin, of Gary, started her shopping trip at midnight at Shoe Carnival.
"We went home, slept a bit and came back out," Martin said while waiting in line to buy coats at JCPenney.
Lawrence Eleftheri, store leader at JCPenney at Westfield Southlake mall, said Friday morning sale prices at his store would continue throughout the day, allowing customers to come and go without the pressure of being out before dawn.
"We didn't feel our customers had to come out early to get a good deal," Eleftheri said.
Eleftheri said small electronics remain a hot item at the store this year as well as sweaters, kid's and women's outerwear, and fashion denim.
Carrie Babcok-Schmitt, of Valparaiso, sat resting in a massage chair in the mall just before 7 a.m.
"We went out last night at 6 o'clock and went out again at midnight then again at 4 this morning," Babcok-Schmitt said, adding that she and her family shopped at Macy's, Menards, Target, Walmart and various stores at the mall.
"It's tradition. We do it every year," she said. "We go early and we're done by 10 o'clock, have breakfast then we're ready for a nap."
Babcok-Schmitt's only complaint?
"My feet are dying," she said.
Joe Sykes, of Chicago's South Side, sat resting on a display stand at JCPenney surrounded by packages while his wife shopped.
"We got here about 5:30," Sykes said.
Sykes said he and his wife come to Indiana on Black Friday annually and that he has one job for the day.
"I'm the pack mule," he said.
Indiana University Northwest professor of marketing Subir Bandyopadhyay said the excitement and camaraderie of traveling with friends and family to visit stores is an important part of the Black Friday tradition.
Richard Feinberg, Purdue University professor of consumer science and retailing, said although Black Friday isn't the highest volume day of the holiday shopping season, it serves as an important "pep rally" for many consumers.
Feinberg said more than half of holiday retail spending occurs during the last week and a half before Christmas, but getting people excited about shopping is one of the key factors that influences how much people spend.
Despite surveys and polls showing in recent weeks that people remain concerned about the direction of the U.S. economy, the National Retail Federation predicted retail sales this year would beat its 10-year average during the holiday season and rise 4.1 percent from 2011 to $586.1 billion.
Bandyopadhyay said brick-and-mortar stores are fighting to remain competitive as online hubs such as Amazon continue to increase their share of the holiday spending pie. He said retailers such as Walmart want to draw people away from other outlets to buy products through their online channel, but the company still needs people to visit its store locations. And with heavy marketing to attract people to a few marquee items, retailers hope to get people to add several other items to baskets and carts in the pursuit of profits, he said.
"The ones that are marquee sales items, they are loss leaders," Bandyopadhyay said. "They (retailers) are attracting folks to the store and they will make the money by selling other things that are full-priced."