Chelsea Haig huddled under a pink blanket outside Toys 'R' Us in Towson, sipping a cup of coffee in the dark as she chatted up other bargain hunters lined up in camp chairs.
"I went to my grandmother's and skipped out on everyone," the White Marsh resident said. "They all laughed at me and thought I was crazy."
Some of the nation's major chain stores opened late Thursday, competing for holiday shoppers to kick off a period that is crucial for the retail industry. After the crowds entered Toys 'R' Us at 9 p.m., Walmart's Black Friday deals started at 10 p.m. Target, Macy's, Best Buy and Kohl's opened at midnight.
Minutes before doors opened at Toys 'R' Us, a line of about 200 people snaked down the sidewalk, and a security officer stood guard at the front doors. A store manager handed out tickets for high-dollar items that were in short supply, including iPods and other electronics.
"Happy Thanksgiving!" employees told customers as they made their way into the store with blue shopping carts, clutching their tickets and sale fliers.
By 9:04 p.m., one young woman's cart was filled with diapers, a remote-control car and a toy medical kit as she grabbed Leapster games from the shelves. The aisles were jammed. Shoppers maneuvered their carts around shelves of princess dolls and stacks of "Lulu My Cuddlin' Kitty Cat," a fluffy white toy that purrs and blinks its eyes.
The National Retail Federation expects sales in November and December to be up 2.8 percent over last year.
About 152 million people are expected to hit stores this weekend, up 10.1 percent from last year, the NRF says.
The early start on the consumer frenzy sparked online petitions from people who called the holiday hours excessive and said they were unfair to store workers.
"I think they should suck it up," said Haig, who had gotten to Toys 'R' Us around 5:30 p.m., looking to save up to 60 percent on toys for her 4-year-old daughter, including Disney princess dolls, the Happy Napper, and a Lalaloopsie doll. "My husband's in the military, and this is one day out of the year to come to work."
Another Toys "R" Us shopper, Leigh Erlandson of Lutherville, said she understood why people were upset, "but I also think in this economy, it's important for people to save a little. … These are businesses," she said. "They're out looking to make money. That's their job. You can't stop that." Erlandson was with her 15-year-old son, Reed, to score a great deal on some video games.
Erlandson arrived early at the store and said she enjoyed meeting other savvy shoppers, who advised her on the best bargain websites and how to sell an old iPhone on eBay. She planned to stop at Target for a vacuum cleaner and Macy's for boots later in the night.
"It's a lot of fun," she said as she waited for Toys 'R' Us to open, flipping through a stack of newspaper ads in her lap. "You meet some really nice people."
For some, the bargain-hunting came before the turkey dinner.
Kmart was among stores open for the holiday — the 20th consecutive year the retailer has done business on Thanksgiving.
At the Kmart near Northern Parkway in Northwest Baltimore, a steady stream of customers walked into the store Thursday afternoon. Some left with everyday items — laundry detergent, sugar, bagged ice. Others snagged early deals on gifts.
Angela Saunders of Pikesville bought children's boots — which were buy one pair, get another half-off — and discounted Dora the Explorer toys for her toddler granddaughter.
"We probably saved about a good $50," said Saunders, who made the trip before heading off to dinner in Catonsville.
Some Kmart customers said they were just looking for something to do before their feasts.
"I'm just killing time before it's time to eat," said Stan Williams of Baltimore, who said he saved $17 on a pair of work boots and Ravens gear.
Sheri and Israel Tropper of New York were also killing time before having Thanksgiving dinner at Israel's brother's house.
It's easier to shop in Baltimore than in Manhattan, they said.
"Here you just take the car, jump in, jump out," said Sheri Tropper, who bought tops for work at $8 each.
Thanksgiving Day shopping is a tradition for the Troppers.
"This is more fun than eating," Sheri Tropper said. "Less calories."
Reuters contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun