On a holiday morning that in bygone years meant deserted mall parking lots, crack-of-dawn consumers lugged packages to their cars and wrestled flat-screen TVs into minivans shortly after the department store's opening at 7 a.m. By nightfall, a crowd of several hundred people anxious to get their hands on discounted HDTVs and appliances rushed into the Sears at Security Square when the doors opened at 8.
Black Friday, widely thought to be the day when retailers' figures moved out of the red and into the black for the year, is increasingly creeping into Thursday, and some say the trend is here to stay.
Shoppers at Sears experienced the highs and lows of sacrificing part of their holiday in order to get a good deal.
"It was worth it," said Danny Mills, a high school student from Limerick, Pa., who had waited in line with his uncle since 8 a.m. to get one of the five 50-inch televisions that Sears was selling for $299. "I got a new TV and will give the Black Friday TV I got last year to my younger brother," he said. "I traded up."
It was not such a success for Haris Qudsi of Catonsville, a student at University of Maryland Baltimore County. He didn't get the 50-inch TV he wanted because the store ran out. He chose a 40-inch set for $429 instead, but was philosophical about the hit-or-miss experience. "I had expected a mad rush," he said.
Early Thursday morning, Heather Kim of Towson admitted that it was "kind of ridiculous'' for her and her daughter, Kylee, 7, to have left home at 6:15 a.m. to be 89th in line outside the store. But she managed to score a $75 jacket for $10, along with boots and other bargains.
"You do what you got to do to get your deals. What's sleep, right?" she said.
While excited about the savings, some shoppers like Ernie Barton of Aberdeen felt for workers who had to staff the stores on the holiday. But that didn't stop him from joining a line he estimated at 300-400 shoppers before the doors opened.
"It's not like you're going in there and you might save something. You're definitely saving money going in there," he said.
When Brittany Evans of Owings Mills found out that Best Buy would be offering 40-inch televisions for $179, she ran home, showered, threw some food in the cat's bowl and called her boyfriend to say, "I don't know when I'll see you, but if you need me I'll be at Best Buy."
When she pulled into the parking lot off Owings Mills Boulevard at 11 p.m. Wednesday night, she claimed the first spot in line. The store didn't open until midnight Thursday. Evans, a 25-year-old Nordstrom clerk, said her friends and family thought she'd lost her mind, to spend 25 hours camped outside for a TV.
At 1 p.m., saying the time was "flying by," Evans was hardly suffering. Wrapped in a fuzzy blanket, she communed with her bargain-hunting line mates who'd by then were sharing food and stories.
"Yeah, I'm not spending time with my loved ones, which is kind of sad," she said. "But Christmas is right around the corner and it's just one day. I'll see them tomorrow."
Best Buy had equipped early birds by installing temporary portable restrooms alongside the store. Those in line before the store opened had the best chance to claim tickets for the biggest "door buster" sales.
George and Latanya Brooks claimed the eighth and ninth spots in the Best Buy line, arriving at 8 a.m. The Randallstown couple hoped to snag two of the 40-inch TVs, two $39 Blu-ray players and two 50-inch televisions. Some they'd keep; the rest would become gifts.
Brooks had put her turkey in the oven before she left and drove home a few hours later to get it from the oven while her husband minded their seats.
"It's just a little sacrifice, but we'll do Thanksgiving tomorrow," she said, as her husband added with a laugh, "It will taste better after you come home with those deals."
Ron Oliverio of Dundalk said he and his wife, Patti, found a deal in a $749 artificial Christmas tree that cost them $150 at Boscov's.
"I used to work retail, so it's not fun if it's your job," Oliverio said. "I'm sure everybody would like to be home and not doing it."
Kristi Hanlon of Parkville said she had "mixed emotions" about Thanksgiving Day shopping. But she said her mother, Colleen Bentz of Stoystown, Pa., woke and up and was ready to go.
"It's the deals," Hanlon said.
To some Marylanders, the sight of a department store opening Thanksgiving morning is still a strange concept. Belinda Zhou of Fallston, who had come to White Marsh Mall to pick up a friend from the bus hub there, leaned out of her car and asked: "Are they open today? That's crazy. I can't believe it."
Once she thought about it, though, she liked the idea.
"We always go to Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving, and we never leave until 10 o'clock," she said.
For the Sears shoppers, it was all about the bargain televisions.
Bernard Davis, a truck driver from Randallstown who had been waiting for hours, said he initially thought he wasn't going to get a 50-inch set because he was sixth in line and there were only five available. But then a woman ahead of him changed her mind and gave her voucher to him. Davis, in turn, had taken a voucher for a 32-inch set and "paid it forward" by passing that on to someone in line behind him.
"I'm happy," Davis said. "But I'll never do Black Friday again."
Kevin Steeley, manager of the Sears store at Security Square, said he was "floored by the amount of people who are taking the opportunity to visit us on Thanksgiving. It's way more than I anticipated."
He said the store had a limited number of certain items at the "doorbuster" price, such as 5 of the 50-inch Toshiba televisions and 11 of the 32-inch sets for $97. Whenever bargain items were sold out, he said, employees pointed to "other great deals."
Saad Malik, a UMBC student and Black Friday veteran, missed out on the TV he wanted. He said he thought having stores opening at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving doesn't benefit bargain hunters as much as midnight store openings because the early evening crowds are larger and the competition is greater.
"Early morning is better," he said. "Not as many people are awake."
Jim Boscov, vice chairman of Reading, Pa.-based Boscov's, said it's the company's third year of opening on Thanksgiving but the first at its recently reopened Maryland stores.
Boscov said his company chose to open Thanksgiving morning, rather than in the evening as many other stores were doing, because it was easier on the employees.
"We thought it was more humane," he said. "It made a nice day for our co-workers to be open in the morning and to be able to spend the afternoon at home with their families."
This is the second year that Sears has been open on Thanksgiving. According to spokeswoman Carson Quinn, it was open on Thanksgiving in 2010 but not in 2011.
In Boscov's view, Thanksgiving Day operations will continue.
"The Christmas season, retailing in general, is very competitive. As Black Friday gets moving farther and farther forward, we can't ignore that and give business to our competitors."
Not everyone is happy with the trend. The United Food and Commercial Workers union has been organizing a nationwide protest of Walmart's plan to begin its Black Friday sales blitz by opening its doors Thanksgiving at 8 p.m.
But Jill Cashen, a union spokeswoman, said she hadn't heard of department stores other than Boscov's getting a jump on the holiday by opening on the morning of the holiday.
"It's a trend that retail workers are concerned about," she said.
Cashen said grocery workers have long accepted that Thanksgiving morning work was part of their jobs.
"I think there's a more urgent need for food than for electronics and linens," she said.
Cashen said that in grocery stores with union contracts workers get holiday pay and have bidding rights for whether to be on or off on Thanksgiving. She expressed concern than in nonunion shops, workers may not have those rights.
Boscov's employees said they were receiving double pay for the day.
With Thanksgiving Day no longer sacrosanct, it remains to be seen whether Christmas Day will be next for big stores. Boscov said he hopes not.
"It wouldn't be our plan to open on Christmas," he said.
Baltimore Sun reporters Edward Gunts and Jill Rosen contributed to this report.