Customers who could start shopping at 6 a.m. Thursday, Nov....

Customers who could start shopping at 6 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 27, 2014, bring their items from to a checkout counter at Kmart in Bohemia. Kmart was among several large retailers to open for business on Thanksgiving Day. Credit: Ed Betz

Long Island shoppers filled malls and department stores Thanksgiving night, opting to ditch their birds in order to avoid larger crowds on Black Friday.

The early shopping spree has been dubbed by some as "Gray Thursday," which offers a trade-off from Friday, among the busiest shopping days of the year, and an early jump on doorbuster deals.

This Thanksgiving Day, many retailers -- including Macy's, Best Buy, Kohl's, Kmart, Sears, Toys R Us, J.C. Penney, Target, Walmart and Staples -- opened as early as 8 a.m., with the majority not until 6 p.m.

While Best Buy's decision to open at 5 p.m. Thursday delayed some Thanksgiving dinners, shoppers at the store's Huntington Station location said it helped prevent a mob-like atmosphere.

"It's good for the people; they get to jump on it," said Anthony Rizo, 31, of Huntington, as he lugged a 55-inch TV out of the store.

About 150 people lined up before the doors opened -- fewer than in previous years, customers said -- and employees handed out tickets allowing some to claim the most coveted items before they even stepped inside. Those who got tickets had until 8 p.m. to pick up their items.

The crowd remained orderly, as shoppers bustled through the store.

Cynthia Pollack, 32, of Centereach, said she joined the line at 2:30 p.m. and was disappointed she didn't get a ticket for a 50-inch Panasonic TV for $200.

"They know there's going to be 200 people, and they gave out what, 10, 15 [tickets]?" she said. "It's not right. I'm very disappointed."

Eric Guerron, 22, who arrived at 5 a.m. from South Ozone Park, Queens -- 12 hours before the store opened -- and was first on line, snagged one of the TVs.

"It's something that's on my bucket list," he said of the shopping experience. "But the snow isn't helping."

Guerron, a biology student at Queens College, said it wasn't until about 7 a.m. that others joined him.

"Next time I know to come a lot later," he said.

Bobby Mills, 55, of Amityville, arrived at 9 a.m. and waited in a blue lawn chair as he chatted with people in line.

"They're nice people," he said. "Everybody is."

Jose Rios, 50, who was the second person waiting at Best Buy after 7 a.m., said he has waited in line outside the store in each of the past six years. He said he promised his wife he wouldn't do it this year.

"I couldn't resist, because I was number one for many years," said Rios, a landscaper who lives in Huntington. "In seven years, I've never had a [Thanksgiving] dinner."

Jen Navarro, 25, of Huntington, also got the TV, but said waiting on line for five hours was a trying experience.

"I'm never doing it again," she said. "I'm going to be late for Thanksgiving dinner."

At the Roosevelt Field mall, J.C. Penney was the first retailer to open early at 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, beating out Macy's opening at 6 p.m.

J.C. Penney employees wearing red-and-white striped gloves gathered inside the store enthusiastically counting down until the time customers were allowed in.

"I'm excited," store leader Garth Simpson said minutes before opening the doors. "This is our Super Bowl."

Shortly after customers were let in, Jenice Tiller, 27, and nine other family members from Jamaica, Queens, entered. They'd waited almost a half-hour outside in the cold. It was her seventh year coming out looking for deals, but only her second time shopping on Thanksgiving.

The family headed straight downstairs, where they immediately picked up deep fryers and waffle irons for $19.99 or $9.99 after mail-in rebates, down from the original prices of $65.

"It's fun," said Tiller, whose Jehovah's Witness family doesn't celebrate Thanksgiving or other holidays. "It gets the family together."

In the shopping maze, Michele Formolo, 29, of Sea Cliff, separated from her husband inside J.C. Penney. She targeted the retailer because after doing research online for nearly a week, she determined it had the best deals. So she picked up kitchenware, clothes and toys for her family, even though she had a $200 budget, which she surpassed.

"I got no money so I have to shop cheap," said Formolo, who waited 40 minutes to enter the store. "I don't shop online because I like to see what I am getting. I don't have the patience to get online, but I have the patience to get in line in stores. It's weird."

Other shoppers in Valley Stream said the early lines appeared intimidating -- but they arrived, up to the challenge.

Even for a veteran Black Friday shopper like Evi Boyd of Rosedale, Queens, the Walmart line in Valley Stream was long.

"I've never been in a line this long before," Boyd said cheerfully, standing at the end of a queue with at least 500 ahead of her. She said she's been a dedicated Black Friday shopper for 15 years. "I've never been this far back."

Others, however, were not as drawn in by the sales. Many, upon inspecting the scope of the lines, simply muttered to themselves before turning back toward their cars.

Even with the earlier store openings Thursday, mobile and online shopping are projected to see a record-breaking year as retailers embrace the Internet and roll out more deals over more days to entice consumers.

National Retail Federation surveys suggest that more than 140.1 million people may shop Thanksgiving Day through Sunday, both in stores and online. A record 56 percent of consumers say they plan to shop online this holiday season, the federation reported.

Marshal Cohen, retail analyst with The NPD Group, a Port Washington-based market research company, predicted online will become the top way to shop this holiday season for the first time.

"It would be the number one source for shopping," he said. "To dethrone the retailers' shopping environment is big."

While a higher percentage of shoppers say they plan to buy online, in-store purchases will still account for more than 80 percent of this year's projected $616.9 billion in holiday sales, according to the National Retail Federation. For many people, shopping is now a combination of Web use and visiting stores, a trend retailers are trying to take full advantage of to boost sales.

Shopping searches on Google coming from smartphones have more than tripled year-over-year and continue to grow, Google retail industry director Scott Falzone said.

"This is going to be the most mobile season in history," Falzone said. "People can shop while being in a store, while watching TV and standing on a line . . . Mobile is helping make the consumer more empowered and more informed, so that when they arrive in the store they have an easier time finding what they are looking for."

Retailers like Toys R Us have become more "omnichannel" -- meaning they allow consumers to choose to shop in stores, online or with mobile applications.

Others, including Walmart and Target, are using mobile apps to guide consumers to merchandise in their physical stores. "You can know where things are with the map on the app," Walmart spokeswoman Molly Blakeman said.

IBM expects online sales to increase 15 percent between Thanksgiving and Cyber Monday compared with last year, with mobile sales accounting for 28 percent, an increase of 9 percent over last year.

"Mobile is the new front door to Target," Target spokesman Eddie Baeb said. "It is where our guests generally go to first. We are seeing them use mobile more and more for shopping."

With this year's Black Friday deals beginning on Thanksgiving and lasting through Cyber Week, many retailers are offering previews to deals, while others are offering exclusive deals to in-store, online and mobile shoppers.

"The deals are going to be plentiful and worthwhile," Cohen said. "They will be around all weekend as retailers stagger the deals."

But analysts said retailers' efforts -- including opening earlier and offering Black Friday deals throughout the weekend -- won't encourage shoppers to spend more. Fifty-nine percent of New Yorkers plan to spend about the same on gifts this year as last year, while 32 percent plan to spend less and only 7 percent intend to spend more, according to the Siena College Research Institute.

With John Asbury

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