WILLMAR -- Store managers were generally pleased as hundreds of people waited for doors to open as early as 3 a.m. Friday for the start of the traditional holiday shopping season.
Parking lots were jammed, and customers at the Kandi Mall Shopping Center and other stores along South First Street were pushing carts and carrying bags full of gifts.
People were seen calling home to check whether they should buy a particular item. Some mall shoppers rested their belongings and weary feet on sofas and chairs or took a break at a food stand.
Desiree Weinandt, Kandi Mall marketing director, described the turnout as above average.
"It met our expectations. It really helped that the department stores opened in staggered times,'' she said.
Weinandt said shoppers are being smart this year. They organized the newspaper advertisements and had a game plan of what store to hit when door busters were being offered.
"That really helped the flow and the cash registers. The lines weren't too bad,'' she said. "We're looking forward to a good day.''
Crowded parking lots led to headaches for some shoppers. As the shopping blitz at Walmart got under way at midnight, a car was blocked by a van and the owner had to be paged in the store.
Security officers at the Kandi Mall were called Friday morning to help a motorist whose vehicle became boxed in on the northeast side of the Herbergers store. Another shopper couldn't find her car, prompting a call to Willmar Police that it had been stolen. With the help of the mall's security staff, she eventually managed to locate the vehicle in the crowded lot.
Shoppers at Jo-Ann Fabrics in the mall had formed a line down to Kmart by the time the door opened at 6 a.m., said manager Amy Hoekstra.
"That is typical,'' she said. Fabrics were the top seller Friday morning because the store had a special on flannel.
Jo-Ann customer Linda from Benson, who didn't give her last name, was accompanied by her daughter and granddaughter. They carried yarn, along with items from another store. This was the second year that Jan had been among the early shoppers.
"We had a blast. It's fun, it's a rush,'' she said. Jan was a little disappointed this time around, however. By the time she got to the stores at 4 a.m., what she had been looking for was gone.
Mike Schull, owner of Sears, said about 60 people were waiting at each entrance when the store opened at 4 a.m. The store had a variety of different door busters: washers and dryers, treadmills, tools, tool boxes, snow throwers and tractors.
Schull said the turnout was a little bit less than what he had last year.
"But looking at where we're at compared to last year, we're fairly close, a little less than last year, but I'm still happy with the results. I think most shoppers are looking for a really good buy.''
JCPenney Manager Roger Thorson said the store opened at 3:15 a.m. instead of the advertised 4 a.m. start because so many people were waiting. However, the earlier start worked out well and business was steady.
He said housewares such as griddles and blenders, which the store had not carried in the past, were popular and nearly every piece was sold before 9 o'clock.
Thorson was pleased with the turnout.
"I've seen transaction amounts probably go up compared to the last 3 to 4 years, and lot of them are smiling and in a pretty good mood,'' he said. "I think the economy is really turning around in our county from what I hear. I see nothing but smiling faces and armfuls of bags either from us or from someone else.''
Nearly 50 people were waiting when Runnings Farm and Fleet opened at 5 a.m. -- an hour earlier than last year -- to get a jump on the competition, according to manager Mike Witt.
"The world has convinced everybody that they have to be here right away,'' said Witt.
He said the store was offering an early bird bonus of 20 percent on all morning purchases. Infrared heaters, fish houses and firearms were selling well.
Runnings customer Jan Skoviera of Willmar was looking for Christmas presents for her husband, Sam, and a niece. She said some stores were busy.
"It's a little hectic, but I guess that's part of the day,'' she said.
Myron Dunlavy, owner of Dunlavy's General Store in downtown Willmar, reopened last week after being closed for nine months while he received cancer treatment at the University of Minnesota Hospital.
Dunlavy opened 12 years ago, selling home decorating and gift items. He's thinking positive this year.
"I'm hoping it will be better than the last couple of years,'' he said. "It sounds like people are out and about today. We're glad to be back and glad to be open again. Come down and see us.''
Staff writer Anne Polta also contributed to this story.