Thousands of alert shoppers at American military bases across Europe got up early Friday to grab the best bargains in what many refer to as the busiest shopping day of the year.

That would include Susana Sobrino, the manager of the Army and Air Force Exchange Service store at Aviano Air Base, Italy.

“I’ve been here since 4 a.m. getting ready,” she said.

The store opened at 7 a.m. and business appeared to be brisk a few hours later. That was the case at many exchanges across the continent.

In Würzburg, Germany, shoppers flocked to the largest exchange in Europe.

“At 10 after six (o’clock), we already had 300 customers here lined up outside,” said Lee Muslin, the store manager. “They were ready.”

Muslin said workers stayed up all night Thursday preparing the holiday displays. AAFES beefed up its usual sales staff with dozens of seasonal workers. Employees from nearby Kitzingen also came to help with Friday’s expected crowd of 20,000 shoppers, about twice as many as on a typical weekend.

The crowds weren’t that large at Aviano. But customers were buying many of the same things as their counterparts up north. A sale on DVD players had people lined up before the store opened, and shoppers continued to pour into the exchange despite another day of steady rain.

Serina Gordon had four children along with her to check out the sales. The oldest, fifth-grader Andrea, probably scored the most, getting a set of roller blades for Christmas. There were other packages in the cart, though.

“This is our first time shopping after Thanksgiving here, but we do it every year in the States,” Gordon said.

In Würzburg, Muslin said the hottest-selling items were electronics. She said the store is hoping for sales 4 percent to 6 percent above last year’s, fueled in part by the upcoming deployment of the 1st Infantry Division to Iraq: “I think they’re probably going to make this Christmas extra special.”

Carol Amerson traveled an hour from Bamberg with her daughters, 9-year-old Brittany and 4-month-old Alyssa, to buy a cart full of toys, wrapping paper and other goodies.

Her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Paul Amerson, is scheduled to leave in the spring for a one-year tour of Iraq.

“We’re going all out this year, since he won’t be here next year,” she said.

The deployment blues already have hit many families in the area.

Sgt. Jessica Paredes of the 317th Maintenance Company in Bamberg brought her two daughters, Geira, 2, and Melanie, 2 months, with her to the exchange.

She’s pregnant and her husband is in Iraq until spring. In four years, this is their first Christmas apart.

Babette Middlemiss of Giebelstadt is a bit luckier. An American, she is married to Lt. Col. Paul Middlemiss of the British army. His unit, The Kings Own Scottish Borderers, is serving in Iraq, but he is home in Germany working as a NATO liaison with U.S. forces.

She enjoys the taste of the States she gets at the exchange during the holidays.

“Because I’m born American, I just love coming here, hearing the American voices and seeing the American merchandise,” Middlemiss said. “We never cease to be amazed at how much stuff they bring over here for the troops.”

For Rosa Perez, also from Giebelstadt, shopping the post-Thanksgiving sales is social as much as anything.

“You can’t miss nobody, co-workers and everyone,” said Perez, whose husband is deployed to Iraq. “They’re all here.”

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Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.

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