Diane Townes waited in line for 12 hours to get her door-buster deals — printers, a laptop and a 50-inch television — so imagine her chagrin when it looked like she wouldn't be able to squeeze it all into her car Friday morning.
The Owings Mills nurse shivered in the cold at 5:30 a.m. outside the Towson Walmart, watching store workers try unsuccessfully to fit her $298 Emerson TV in the trunk and back seat. She finally folded down her back seats and shoved it through the trunk, capping a shopping spree that had started Thanksgiving afternoon.
"It was worth it," Townes said.
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More and more, participants in the annual day-after-Thanksgiving ritual of mass shopping are — like Townes — interrupting their holidays to start early. Lines for break-of-dawn Black Friday deals get going even earlier. And Thanksgiving openings are becoming the norm.
The expanded hours gave some shoppers a respite from the Friday crush seen in years past. While retailers were busy enough around 8 a.m. Friday that it seemed like a weekend day, stores were far short of frenzied.
"I feel like it's not nearly as crowded as it normally is," said Brent Ellick, 22, as he handed out promotional Monster Energy drinks to shoppers in front of an Elkridge Best Buy. "It's because everybody started Black Friday on Thursday."
That's just one way in which retailers' approach to Black Friday has radically changed.
This year, companies ramped up holiday-sale marketing campaigns soon after the Nov. 6 election, using social media such as Facebook, email campaigns and more traditional advertising to reach consumers. Many stores scheduled their door-buster sales in phases, sprinkling the starting times over multiple hours rather than all at once.
The early starts, staggered deals and stiff competition posed by online retailers "have spread sales and traffic out more this year than any other," said research firm Retail Metrics Inc. in a Friday afternoon report, calling the crowds that morning "decent but not great."
"It's totally different from before, a few years back," said Renato Scaff, a senior executive in the retail practice for management consulting firm Accenture. "Not only is it creeping up earlier, but it's parsed out into mini-promotions versus one big giant one."
The National Retail Federation is forecasting a 4.1 percent increase in holiday sales compared with last year, but Accenture says consumers surveyed about shopping plans are very budget-conscious. Shoppers expect to spend an average of about $580 on holiday purchases, a slight increase over last year, Accenture said.
"The dollars that are going to be spent through the holidays are going to be finite," Scaff said. "Retailers are starting early to get more market share and steal from each other — it's not driving additional dollars."
At the same time, more consumers told Accenture that they planned to shop this Black Friday after three years of declining interest in the phenomenon. Scaff said the shift is budget-driven: Shoppers are more likely to set money aside rather than run up credit cards and more likely than ever to buy only discounted items, so they looked to Friday as a way to score deals — not as the hot new thing.
"It's all competition on price," Scaff said.
The cutthroat struggle between big retailers doesn't make it easy on small stores trying to position themselves for some of the crowds. Christie Griffiths, owner of Brightside Boutique in Baltimore's Federal Hill, decided to open from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday — with 50 percent off itmes on the sale rack and 30 percent off everything else — in hopes of getting second-wind shoppers.
"I feel like everyone wakes up in the morning and goes to the huge department stores and the Best Buy and things like that," said Griffiths, whose boutique launched in January. "I'm just trying to figure out a time when they're coming in after all that."
Some Baltimore-area shoppers who turned out Friday were dead-set against having anything to do with the Thanksgiving retail creep. Shirlene Moss, 50, a data-entry worker from Brooklyn Park, wanted the holiday to be about family — and she felt sorry for the retail employees who didn't have that choice.
It was four hours after she and her 16-year-old daughter started their hunt for deals, and things had gone well for them. There was plenty of parking and speedy lines.
But the day wasn't problem-free.