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Die-hard shoppers braving Thanksgiving cold: 'This is our family tradition now'

Something seemed off when Carol Boileau pulled into the Best Buy parking lot on Niagara Falls Boulevard at 9 a.m. Thursday: It was empty.

“We thought we were here the wrong day,” said the Toronto resident, who came to town in pursuit of two 43-inch TVs, each at about half the regular price, and a slew of other bargains.

Buffalonians – and their Canadian neighbors – are a hardy bunch, but it turns out that a single-digit windchill can, in fact, put a damper on the local Black Friday-on-Thursday experience.

Showing up at 9 a.m. when the store doesn’t open until 5 p.m. might seem extreme. But most years, a handful of die-hard bargain-hunters pitch pup tents on the sidewalk in the predawn hours. In warmer years, customers have hunkered down outside the store a full day before the doors opened.

This year, in recognition of the cold, Best Buy employees handed out disposable handwarmers to customers in line who hadn’t brought their own. And at around 4 p.m., they handed out numbers, which guaranteed the people at the front of the line would go home with the featured deals, giving them the chance to warm up in their cars for a while. By the time the store opened its doors, upward of 400 or 500 people were in line, though many arrived in the final hour.

More lines are expected early Friday, as stores open as early as 5 a.m. in an attempt to lure customers with deals.

Rashida Mitchell and her 19-year-old daughter, Najya Odunsi, were among the earliest to arrive Thursday. They tag-teamed for five hours, with one of them braving the cold and the other sitting in the car with the heater running – a common strategy among those who came with a shopping buddy.

The Buffalo mother and daughter went home Thursday with a PlayStation 4 – for $199, or about $100 less than usual price – and a 43-inch Amazon Fire TV with voice remote – $129, a $200 savings. Both will be set up in Odunsi’s room.

They already have a 50-inch TV in their living room, thanks to last year’s Black Friday sale.

“I know it’s craziness for that one purchase that’s a really good deal,” Mitchell said. “It’s Thanksgiving. Whereas other people are cooking and eating, this is our family tradition now.”

And so it is, too, for many other Western New Yorkers. Many waiting on line at various stores on Thursday chatted with others they had met in line in past years, greeting them like old friends.

Black Friday shopping started early at J.C. Penney at the Boulevard Mall in Amherst on Thursday. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

“I guess they’re like your little Thanksgiving family outside. If you go to Tim Hortons, you buy the coffee. Then next time, they buy the coffee,” said Karen Huetter, who was first in line Thursday at J.C. Penney at the Boulevard Mall.

She should know. She’s something of a seasoned Black Friday veteran, with more than 10 years under her belt.

The Town of Tonawanda resident is no single-stop shopper. She has it pretty much down to a science.

Thursday morning, she was up before 5 a.m. First stop: Kmart, which opened at 6, then on to Big Lots. She and her fiancé, Raymond Checko, stopped home briefly before arriving at J.C. Penney at around 11. They waited in their car for about an hour until the next people in line showed up – at which point Huetter and Checko bundled up, blankets and all, to wait outside until JCPenney’s 2 p.m. opening. Huetter says she saved more than $600 there on Christmas gifts – clothes, jewelry, Bills gear and baby gifts for her granddaughter.

From there, the couple made a quick stop for Thanksgiving dinner at Checko’s sister’s house before heading out to Walmart.

“We eat and leave,” Huetter said. “That’s just how it goes on Thanksgiving.”

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