Still wiping the sleep from their eyes and cradling cups of piping-hot coffee, Miranda Smith of Lady's Island and her two daughters were met with an unfamiliar sight as they piled out of their SUV near Beaufort's Best Buy store at about 5 a.m. Friday.
Unlike years past, when they moved shoulder-to-shoulder through crowded Beaufort-area stores in the pre-dawn hours of Black Friday, the Smiths found plenty of parking spaces and smaller crowds.
"It's kind of surreal," Miranda Smith said, surveying the parking lot. "I'm guessing it's because the store opened at midnight this year, and more people were here earlier. That's fine and all, but it doesn't really feel like Black Friday if you don't have to wake up early and not just stay up late."
Inside the store, bargain hunters strolled easily through the aisles and sorted through large plastic bins containing discounted copies of video games and DVDs.
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Some shoppers, like Rick Craven of Beaufort, purchased what they came for without being at the store when it opened.
"I'll take this kind of Black Friday every year," Craven said, clutching a stack of DVDs and video games. "You don't have people everywhere, the lines at the register look short and the employees can actually answer people's questions about stuff instead of doing crowd control."
Many major retailers, like Best Buy and Target, opted for midnight openings this year instead of the 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. openings of years past to try to be the first to pull in shoppers.
Considered by many to be the official start of the Christmas shopping season, Black Friday is a critical day for retailers, as sales often help push stores into profitability, according to the National Retail Federation.
The November-December period accounts for 25 to 40 percent of annual sales. For 2011, that's almost half a trillion dollars in revenue from spending on everything from computer tablets to toys.
A record number of shoppers are expected to head to stores across the country this weekend to take advantage of discounts of up to 70 percent. For three days starting on Black Friday, 152 million people are expected shop, up about 10 percent from last year, according to the National Retail Federation.
The holiday shopping season is no less important to businesses in downtown Beaufort, where some shoppers along Bay Street were mulling whether to make their purchases Friday or wait until today when several local retailers are expected to offer sales and host special events as part of "Small Business Saturday."
The event was created by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Express to encourage shoppers to patronize independently owned stores.
"I heard about Small Business Saturday a while ago and thought it seemed like a great idea," said Sarah Jamison of Beaufort. "These local stores deserve their own day just like these bigger chain stores. I'll be down here tomorrow, giving these people my business, and I hope I'm not alone."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Follow reporter Patrick Donohue at twitter.com/ProtectServeBft.