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Tom Rowcliffe, store manager of JCPenney's at Eastpoint Mall, talks about being open Thanksgiving afternoon and Balck Friday as well as the coupons offered at 3 p.m. on Thanksgiving and at 6 a.m. on Black Friday to customers. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun video)

At 6 a.m. on Black Friday, JCPenney general manager Tom Rowcliffe was 17 hours into his marathon shift, with nine more to go — and showing no signs of fading.

He weaved briskly through the Eastpoint Mall store as it geared up again after a quiet night. Part cheerleader, part coach, he greeted each customer he encountered with "You doing OK?" and each employee with "Hello, my friend," or "Appreciate you coming in."

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The York, Pa., man, working his 22nd Black Friday, stopped to troubleshoot a computer glitch at a register, answer the radio clipped to his belt, check out a shopper's purchase and talk to a customer by phone. He skipped the elevator and bounded downstairs to his office, a short stop to pick up coupons before taking the stairs back up to the selling floor.

Even in perpetual motion, the goateed and bespectacled 49-year-old appeared unruffled.

"We've done all the planning. We've done all the work," Rowcliffe said. Still, "you don't stay in one spot long."

Black Friday might now be a shadow of its former self, as stores start holiday promotions earlier in the season, and more people shop online. Still, retailers such as JCPenney call in extra staff and launch some of their biggest promotions of the year.

Events are scheduled in shopping districts around Maryland to lure people who are looking to spend their money at locally owned establishments on Small Business Saturday.

"It's still a huge weekend for us — the busiest selling weekend of the year, " Rowcliffe said.

American chain stores still see Black Friday as an opportunity to attract some of the 137.4 million people who the National Retail Federation estimates will shop over Thanksgiving weekend in stores and online. The retail trade group expects holiday season sales of $655.8 billion, a 3.6 percent increase over last year's receipts.

Sales will be "robust," said Richard E. Jaffe, a retail analyst with Baltimore-based Stifel, Nicolaus & Co., in a report Friday. He pointed to broader acceptance of fashion trends, pent-up demand after a contentious presidential election and a stronger economy.

Shoppers head out on Thanksgiving day in search of deals in Glen Burnie, Md. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun video)

Three-quarters of Americans still see shopping in stores as one of the best ways to get in the holiday spirit, research by Citi Retail Services shows. The group said more than nine in 10 people will buy at least one gift in a store, and more than half of holiday gifts will be purchased in person rather than online.

Some of the survey respondents — 42 percent — said that visiting a store as a family is more common than singing holiday songs or carols.

"We see retailers across the country embracing this tradition and investing in exceptional in-store experiences," said Leslie McNamara, managing director of business and market development at Citi Retail Services. "American shoppers clearly see holiday shopping as a unique and special activity."

That was part of the draw Friday for Denise Fordham. The Rosedale woman, who works for the Baltimore Police Department answering 911 and 311 calls, said she shops each Black Friday for the deals, and because "this is what puts you in the [holiday] mood."

It's part of Rowcliffe's job to help set that mood, making sure those who walk through the doors not only find what they want and discover more to buy, but also feel good about the experience.

On Friday, he split his time greeting customers, "putting out fires" and overseeing the replenishment of merchandise from the stockroom, as items such as $7.99 small appliances and $19.99 boots sold out fast.

"We greet, greet, greet. That's what JCPenney was founded on — the golden rule," he said.

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He moved past women's shoes, outfitted in a red "Get Your Penney's Worth" T-shirt.

"My wife asks if I'm running for mayor," he said.

Personally congratulating the winners of the coupon giveaway were among the day's highlights, he said. The giveaway, a mix of $10, $100 and $500 discounts, began at 6 a.m. and lasted until coupons ran out a couple of hours later.

He started his shift at 1 p.m. on Thanksgiving in preparation for the store's 3 p.m. opening. He chose to work straight through the night until 3 p.m. Friday.

Sherri Floystad had been out shopping since 3 p.m. Thursday. She visited JCPenney with her 19-year-old daughter for the in-store Sephora cosmetics shop.

The Dundalk woman was surprised to open a coupon revealing a $100 discount.

"I'm so happy," she said.

Tom Rowcliffe, store manager of JCPenney's at the Eastpoint Mall, confirms for Adrienne Coleman of Baltimore City that she won a $500 coupon special.
Tom Rowcliffe, store manager of JCPenney's at the Eastpoint Mall, confirms for Adrienne Coleman of Baltimore City that she won a $500 coupon special. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

Adrienne Coleman appeared stunned after Rowcliffe handed her one of the last remaining coupons — worth $500. She'd been winding down her Black Friday shopping — she said she preferred to buy most gifts online — and just happened to stop in at JCPenney.

For Rowcliffe, working holidays such as Thanksgiving is part of the job. He celebrated an early Thanksgiving last Sunday with his wife and children, a 16-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter.

"It's retail, and we know that it's the way it is," he said. He puts vacation on hold between Labor Day and Christmas.

Over 22 years, the Buffalo native has worked at nine JCPenney stores in six states.

He started his career with a summer job in May 1994 picking up trash and hangers for the chain after he graduated from State University of New York at Oswego.

He entered the manager trainee program. As he moved from store to store, he headed each of the departments, among them home goods, women's accessories and women's jewelry. He worked as a store assistant manager, then as a general manager for three stores.

He started at the Eastpoint Mall store in October. He oversees 150 workers.

He's worked every Black Friday since 1994.

"In the past, we were only open for a single day, so it was a lot bigger crowd that came in," he said. "Now it's more spread out, but it's actually better now because we can manage the lines better. It's been a benefit, and our customers have been very receptive."

JG Sassy will offer the following discounts through Monday, Nov. 28: 30 percent off jeans; 30 percent off cashmere sweaters; 50 to 60 percent off Saint James,

Jaffe said Black Friday has turned into Black November as retailers respond to competition by promoting sales earlier in the month.

The shopping landscape, too, has shifted, with online retailers such as Amazon and discounters such as Wal-Mart and Target cutting into traditional department stores' customer base.

But Rowcliffe sees a bright future for the department store channel.

"You're always going to need bricks-and-mortar stores," he said. "People still want to come in and touch and feel the merchandise, and they also want the personal touch. The key is to have the right assortment at the right price and also be promotional."

He has watched the chain expand its assortment online, add appliances in stores and offer more services.

"We've adapted," he said, "and we've gone to where the business is."

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