It was just before 3 p.m. on Thanksgiving and Cynthia Hughes eagerly waited outside Belk for its the 4 p.m. opening at Danville Mall. She and her son had been there since 1 p.m. and were the first ones at the door.

She was determined to win that one $500 gift card the store was giving out for a lucky shopper. Gift cards from $5 to $500 were offered for a limited number of customers Thursday and Friday.

“I wanted to make sure and get that big card this year,” said Cynthia, who had waited outside Belk on Thanksgiving Day the previous three years.

She and her son, Ryan Hughes, were just two of thousands out to gobble up Thanksgiving specials at certain stores opening up Thursday.

Over at JCPenney at about 1:30 p.m., about 500 to 600 people bundled up in the windy, chilly weather, as the long chain of customers snaked around the corner outside the store’s top floor. That was in addition to those waiting outside the bottom entrance, said store manager John Williams.

JCPenney has opened on Thanksgiving Day for six years, he said.

“Our customer response has been very positive,” said Williams, who wore a festive Christmas outfit that included a red-and-white scarf and a hat designed like a chimney with Santa Claus’ black boots sticking out the top. “They line up at our door every year.”

Besides discounted items, JCPenney offered coupons of $500 off for a $500 purchase, $100 for $100 and $10 off $10.

The store was to be open from 2 p.m. Thursday and overnight through 9 p.m. today, Williams said.

Outside the store, Danville resident Janet Gibson was hoping to snag the big prize.

“I’m looking for that $500 gift card,” she said while standing in line.

She also planned to make a full afternoon of the Thanksgiving retail options in the city, heading to Belk at 4 and Walmart and Target later. She hoped to pick up a 50-inch television, pajamas for her grandchildren and a Keurig coffee maker for herself.

But why on Thanksgiving?

“Because it’s like magic,” Gibson said. “It’s a magical time of the year. I like the hustle and the bustle.”

Nationwide, about 165.3 million people are expected to shop Thanksgiving Day through Cyber Monday, according to annual survey by the National Retail Federation and Prosper Insights & Analytics. which provides consumer intent information for industries including retail.

About 39.6 million were considering shopping on Thanksgiving Day and 114.6 million on Black Friday, according to the survey released Nov. 15.

“The tradition of Thanksgiving weekend holiday shopping has become a five-day event with consumers spending money in stores, supporting local small businesses, and online with their mobile devices and computers,” National Retail Federation President and CEO Matthew Shay stated in a news release.

The federation estimates holiday retail sales in November and December will be up this year between 3.8% and 4.2% over 2018, for a total of between $727.9 billion and $730.7 billion.

Back at JCPenney, mother-daughter duo Janice and Angela Starling like to hit the stores every Thanksgiving.

“It’s fun,” Angela Starling, who lives in Chatham, said while waiting outside the store. “My Mom and I like to get out and find the deals.”

She planned on buying clothes at JCPenney and heading to Walmart later to pick out a 50-inch television and purchase video games.

They also hoped to get to Target and Old Navy at Coleman Marketplace.

When asked if they couldn’t wait until after Thanksgiving to shop, they said, “No, uh-uh. No!”

Angela joked that they would shop late, go take a nap and head to the stores again tomorrow.

Danville resident Teresa Davis waited in the parking lot after she left the line to smoke a cigarette. She came to JCPenney with her nephew and sister-in-law.

“This is a family tradition,” Davis said of Thanksgiving shopping.

They weren’t looking for anything in particular to buy, she said.

“We’re just checking things out,” she said, adding they planned to go to Belk, Target and Walmart.

For one man, Thursday was his first Thanksgiving venture out to the stores.

“I hear they’re giving out gift cards,” Danville resident Donnell Walker said. “It’s my first time out on Thanksgiving.”

When the store opened at 2 p.m., customers slowly walked in past Williams, who was handing out gift cards as they entered. There was no crowding, pushing or shoving at the door.

Over at Belk, Halifax County resident Lisa Phelps was one of about a dozen people waiting for that store’s 4 p.m. opening. She still had more than an hour to wait.

“I get things cheaper,” she said of shopping on Thanksgiving.

At about 3 p.m., about a dozen customers sat out in the cold outside Target, many of them wrapped in blankets while they waited on the store’s 5 p.m. opening.

Store leader Sabian Nieves said there were specials including a 65-inch 4K smart television for $279.99.

“We’ve got a ton of TVs,” Nieves said.

There also were discounts on PlayStations, laptops and other items.

Danville resident Allison Arenas sat outside with Courtney Brande, who also lives in Danville. Arenas was there to look at child car seats.

“I’m getting ready to have a newborn,” Arenas said.

They hoped to check out Pyrex kitchen storage sets for more than half off. They also were looking for clothes and blankets.

“We just kind of grab things as we go along,” Brande said.

They’ve been shopping on Thanksgiving for the past seven years.

“Most of the good deals are, sadly, on Thanksgiving,” Arenas said.

Brande had one last thing to say about the day.

“Bundle up,” she said.

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Crane reports for the Register & Bee. He can be reached at (434) 791-7987.

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