MANKATO — The early afternoon at Mankato's JCPenney on Thanksgiving day is the calm before the storm.

Store associates ready their positions at counters throughout the store while their coworkers provide candy canes and coupons to awaiting customers outside.

The calm dissipates come 2 p.m. when the doors open, shoppers file in and it becomes all hands on deck for staff.

Thanksgiving and Black Friday are the busiest days of the year for retail. Paxson Menard, an associate at JCPenney, said he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Especially when everyone is getting in their Christmas shopping just trying to get more deals, it’s pretty awesome because it makes the day fly by,” he said.

Stores like JCPenney open on Thanksgiving Thursday so Black Friday isn’t quite as crazy for shoppers or staff. More than 100 shoppers lined up outside ahead of the opening, a number comparable to the average year, said Kaylee Bryant, general manager at the store.

“Whether it’s for the TVs or just our merchandise they’re usually lined up out here,” she said.

Holiday shopping regulars and first timers alike made up the front of the line. Rhonda Wolters and daughter, Jennifer Diel, came with a game plan for the day, the mark of any savvy, experienced Thanksgiving consumer.

They started at area stores in the morning, went home for their Thanksgiving meal, then headed to JCPenney. Later they planned to hit up Walmart, Target, Herberger's and Shopko. After a night's rest, they'd be up bright and early for Black Friday deals at Menards. 

At the top of their shopping lists this year were hoverboards and game systems, Christmas presents for Wolters’ grandkids. For herself, she was on the hunt for a new toaster and coffee pot. If secured, she’d be looking at hundreds of dollars in savings.

Over at Best Buy, where more shoppers lined up ahead of a 5 p.m. opening, Eric Grimm of North Mankato was anticipating similar savings on televisions and surround sound systems. He arrived in the morning to snag a spot at the front of the line, passing the time by watching the Vikings game on a phone. 

“It’s normally longer than this to be honest with you," he said of the line alongside the building. "I’m a little surprised.”

Arriving early is necessary if you want to secure the best deals. Stores might only have 20 or so TVs, so the first people in line who want them can get coupons ensuring their purchase.

With 41 years of holiday shopping under her belt, Wolters said having a plan and moving fast are the other keys to successful holiday shopping. 

"Stand exactly by the item you’ll save the most,” she said. “Then run as fast as you can to get the other ones.”

Laurie Folsom and daughter, Kirby, were first-time Thanksgiving day shoppers at JCPenney. They volunteered for the Elks Lodge's Thanksgiving meal at The Salvation Army earlier in the day, so their afternoon was open to check out deals. Pots and pans and any other values were on their lists.

“I just want to see what all the hype is about because we’ve never done it before,” Laurie Folsom said.

From what her and her daughter had seen so far, the holiday shopping rush wasn’t too hectic in Mankato. Nothing like the horror stories they saw on the news every year from other cities.

Fights between deal-crazed shoppers do happen in Mankato, though, Wolters told them. She saw one break out last year while waiting in line outside a store. She had another tip for dealing with that.

“I stand back,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t move out of my spot though.”

Follow Brian Arola @BrianArolaMFP.

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