Ernesto Rocha, a weary traveler who arrived in the U.S. about a week ago, sat on a bench in the shade on an otherwise balmy November day in Gonzales at the Tanger Outlets mall. 

Except this was Black Friday, and Rocha, a middle-aged man who lives in Nicaragua, has trekked to the U.S. for holiday deals for years.

"It's my first time here," said Rocha, who flew into the New Orleans airport. His U.S. shopping expeditions have taken him to New York City, Miami, Orlando, Florida, and Washington D.C. scouting bargains. 

Donning a shirt from his favorite designer store, Ralph Lauren, he had been shopping since 6 a.m., dropped off by his cousin, who works at a nearby restaurant and lives in Madisonville. 

As with many American brands sold in foreign countries, the average cost for designer goods in Nicaragua are sky high, which makes the plane ticket worth the extra cost for eager shoppers. 

"I paid $20," Rocha said as he showed off a pair of brand-name blue mesh running shoes. "But in Nicaragua it would cost, I don't know $100, no less than $80 dollars I'm sure."

Rocha was among the tens of millions of consumers across the U.S. flocking to brick-and-mortar retailers on Black Friday — what has been long touted as the most popular shopping day of the year among retailers. 

The National Retail Federation forecasted that holiday sales will increase between 3.8% and 4.2% this year, up from 2.1% growth over November and December last year.

Adobe Analytics found that online spending hit $4.2 billion on Thanksgiving Day, up 14.5% from a year ago, with Black Friday itself expected to hit $7.4 billion, up 19.2% from a year ago. Some retailers, such as Costco.com, had issues due to high online traffic on Thanksgiving and Black Friday as shoppers scramble for holiday gifts. This holiday shopping season will be the shortest since 2013, the last time Thanksgiving fell on the final weekend of November. 

Even as some shoppers turn to surfing online, crowds still gather at big-box stores to hunt for gifts. 

At the Best Buy off Bluebonnet Boulevard on Thanksgiving Day, Faye Brown stood in a line with several hundred others. 

Brown, who lives in Mississippi, was visiting her son in Baton Rouge. 

She's an avid Black Friday shopper and has found rock-bottom prices by visiting the store for items that are not available for online purchase at such deep discounts — even with the rise of e-commerce sales. 

"It was the price and the availability," Brown said of her decision to stand in line. 

On her wish list were electronics, including a television and air fryer. Often stores have surprise deals, not even advertised, she said. 

"You're always wondering what's the deal that's in-store that won't be online," she said.

Even with online sales, in-person Black Friday lines have gotten longer, she said. 

For Baton Rouge resident Jim Hammerschmidt, who was checking out printed coupons while waiting in line, not as many items were as cheap as he expected.

"You'll start to see that with a lot of items; there's not a great difference in price," Hammerschmidt said.

For example, a smart speaker Amazon Echo that features a tablet-sized screen won't drop lower than $49.99 at any store in person or online. 

"They are all that price whether you get it on Amazon, buy it here or at Lowes, so there's no advantage on that one," he said. "I shop more online than I ever used to but there's not a dramatic difference (in price)." 

On Black Friday morning, the line at Best Buy was significantly shorter but people were still in it a long time. 

Memphis resident Tiffany Henderson was visiting her mother in Baton Rouge and stood in line at Best Buy for a chance to buy a discounted television for her mom. 

"We wanted to get her a nice TV. I haven't been out to Black Friday in years because of the chaos, but this year I'm pleasantly surprised that the line is less than what I was initially expecting," Henderson said. "I'm not a holiday shopper, if anything I'll shop online or before or after the holidays." 

Baton Rouge resident and grandmother Jaime Maroney had been shopping for hours when Best Buy finally opened its doors around 8 a.m. Friday. 

Maroney had stopped at the Bass Pro in Denham Springs in the wee hours of the morning. 

"It's hard … there was a lot of people there, wrapped around the building," she said. 

Her wish list items were still available when she finally got inside. Maroney waited in line at Best Buy for at least an hour for the chance to purchase a $200 laptop computer for her grandson.

She doesn't shop online. She expected to pick up her 18-year-old granddaughter and hit Tanger Outlets afterwards for clothing sales the rest of the day. 

By mid-morning, Franklin resident Jose Guillen was also very tired. He had left his home at 5 a.m. and was at the Gonzales outlet mall before noon. 

"We came here because it's cheaper …. I buy for everybody like stuff for my friends overseas," Guillen, a native of Panama, said. 

Guillen and his wife hunted for designer clothing deals for their daughter who they were sending pictures of clothes for potential purchase. 

But not everyone sought out big-box retailers or opted for designer goods.

Black Friday is also global Record Store Day, where many labels and artists will release limited quantities of vinyl records with previously unrecorded songs or new mixes. Some albums may only have 3,000 copies released around the world. 

For Pop Shop Records owner Charlotte Smith, that's an opportunity for a small business to connect with customers without a rushed atmosphere.

The store opened at 7 a.m. Friday and handed out numbers rather than making customers wait in line. Then the business encouraged customers to visit other local retailers, such as a coffee shop nearby while they waited until their number was up as a more humane shopping experience. 

"It's a very swift and very easy uncomplicated system," Smith said.

For specialty records there's a limited quantity pressed and it's shared among independent retailers. 

"Once we're out, we're out. These things don't get re-released again," she said. 

For the most part, records are largely an in-person experience, which includes listening to the sound quality.

This year, Pop Shop is selling online for the first time during the holiday season as well. It's one of the companies participating in the eBay retail revival program in Baton Rouge. 

"eBay has really allowed us to hit more of a global market," she said. 

And on Black Friday, any specialty new records which aren't sold in-person can find a second market for those who missed sales across independent retailers nationwide.

"There's a lot of people in Europe and Australia who can't get the American cuts of albums," she said. "Local collectors have already picked their collection …. There could be somebody in France who had (their local shop) sold out and this is their only way to get the album."

Online shipping is a pretty quick and painless process, she said. 

"I wish that we had done (selling online) sooner," she said. "Keeping up with what we put on there can be hard; we're a very small business. It would be wonderful to have somebody full time whose job it could be to update our eBay shop, but that's just not where we are yet. Eventually I'd like to get there."

Meanwhile, longtime online and brick-and-mortar retailer BBQ Guys — also known as ShoppersChoice.com — prepared for Black Friday customers all week, and over the years has seen Thanksgiving Day, Black Friday then Cyber Monday shopping meld together. 

"Five years ago there was a pretty hard distinction, we're really seen it transition and now online is huge throughout the weekend," said Corey Tisdale, an early employee of Baton Rouge-based BBQGuys who is an executive vice president.   

The company has been fully staffed during the week and sales begin to grow after dinner on Thanksgiving. It's been months of planning with grills and accessories manufacturers behind the scenes to ensure there's enough in stock for holiday season demand, he said. The company expects to see 20% growth in sales this holiday season compared to last year as outdoor entertainment has expanded beyond grilling to firepits and other activities. 

"We don't want to disappoint anybody," Tisdale said about avoiding one-day sales with limited quantities. "We look for the deals we can offer and promotional bundles manufacturers can do." 

BBQGuys is another business that is participating in the eBay online storefront program. So far, eBay customers are less transactional and more personalized requests, he said.

"We find that customers tend to reach out to us more," he said. "Each sale is an interaction."

The company has found success offering 3D mock-ups of outdoor kitchens, even to online customers.

Overall, online sales is the bulk of the company's business. It also sells on Amazon.com but a small fraction of sales are generated through that storefront. 

"People are more and more doing business in whichever channel is most convenient to them. It's not just online or offline shopping for everything," he said.

Email Kristen Mosbrucker at kmosbrucker@theadvocate.com.