Shoppers by the thousands crowded Baltimore-area stores, beginning their shopping excursions in long lines in the wee hours, proving that Black Friday still holds its appeal to many as the best day to nab holiday deals.
Packs of consumers came out even though retailers have been offering similar deals for weeks now — some since around Halloween — in one of the earliest attempts by the industry to try and ratchet up the start of the season.
Many shoppers came out right after the dishes were cleared from the Thanksgiving meal in search of deals on Black Friday, the day given the name because it has historically been the day retailers turn a profit for the year, entering the black.
Retail analysts said large crowds were typical in stores they visited across the country Friday. Unlike recent years, the momentum seemed to maintain itself into late morning rather than fizzle after the early-bird deals.
"Longer lines. More people. It is much better than last year," said Greg Maloney, president and CEO of the retail group at Jones Lang LaSalle. "The early read now is the shopping season has gotten off to a very good start."
Some analysts believe consumers are more budget-conscious than ever and were lured to shop because of the deals, and they wondered whether the pace would last through the weekend — and the rest of the season. Preliminary sales figures won't be available until Sunday.
"It is amazing how busy it is," Mike Trafford, a Macy's senior vice president in charge of Baltimore-area stores, said Friday. "It is definitely a good sign for the rest of the holiday season, that's for sure."
By 3 a.m., a line had snaked past the front of the Target at Towson Place shopping center in Baltimore County. Wing Lam and friend Ivy Chan were first in line about 8 p.m. Thanksgiving Day. They were eager to get one advertised doorbuster deal: a 40-inch Westinghouse flat-screen television, the most coveted item for most people in line.
The two friends, who live in Rosedale, said deals like that are what bring them out on Black Friday. "We're just that crazy, too," Lam said.
The National Retail Federation, which will release weekend sales results Sunday, has said consumers are cautious because of the high unemployment rate, but they will still spend.
Sales are expected to increase a moderate 2.3 percent from last year, to $447 billion, according to the trade group. While that growth remains slightly lower than the 10-year average holiday sales increase of 2.5 percent, it would be a marked improvement from last year's 0.4 percent increase and the 3.9 percent holiday sales decline retailers reported in 2008.
Retailers say Black Friday is important as an indication of how the rest of the season will go.
Analysts will be watching the rest of the weekend to see if shoppers still come out once the biggest deals are gone. Marshall Cohen, chief industry analyst with consumer research firm NPD Group, thinks that the next couple of weeks — when there is usually a lull in holiday shopping — will be worse this year because of the pre-Black Friday deals.
The crowds were largely calm as retailers put in place mechanisms to prevent stampedes and other dangerous situations. Target gave out tickets for the most popular items and armed shoppers with store maps. They left the doors only slightly ajar during opening to control the crowd.
Once shoppers were inside, the adrenaline kicked in, and they grabbed their carts and raced through the aisles to get to the deals, creating traffic jams.
" Wii Fit! Wii Fit! Move out of my way, I got to get a Wii Fit," Stacy Queen jovially shouted as she quickly scooted her way through racks of clothes to the electronics section at the back of the store.
"I got what I had to get," the administrative assistant said as she waited in line later to pay for her items. Queen, who shops at Target every Black Friday, also got a GPS, a 40-inch flat-screen TV and an iPod. She had waited in line since midnight for the doorbuster deals.
Toys "R" Us representatives said opening at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving worked well for them, with some stores having as many as 1,000 people in line.
"There were smiles on people's faces because they were able to get in and get an early jump start on shopping and check that off their shopping list," said Greg Ahearn, Toys "R" Us senior vice president of marketing and e-commerce.
Sisters Kim Jones, 35, and Kaycee Campbell, 29, started shopping at 10 p.m. Thursday at the Columbia Toys "R" Us — where they had a 90-minute wait in line — and hadn't slept by the time they were shopping at their final destination at Kohl's at 8:30 the next morning. They had also swung by Arundel Mills and Target.
As Campbell looked for a few more items at Kohl's and Jones almost nodded off while sitting in a chair, the pair said stores opening earlier is exhausting, but the deals are good.
"I prefer the Friday start at 3 or 4 o'clock," said Jones, who lives in Laurel and has four children. "At least I can get a little bit of sleep. … I've been up since 7 [a.m.] yesterday because I had to cook."
It took just 10 minutes for Aeropostale at White Marsh Mall, which opened at midnight, to run out of a fragrance it gave to the first 100 shoppers, said Michelle Jose, mall marketing manager.
"There are a lot more shoppers and a lot more bags" than last year, Jose said. "You can see people out with lists and on a mission."
Debbie Skinner of Essex started shopping at 3:30 a.m. at Kohl's, then headed for Kmart and ended at White Marsh Mall by midmorning with her niece and sister, spending about $240 during their mall visit.
Skinner said she shops on Black Friday for the sales and because "I like to be out in the crowds."
People were able to wait inside at the Walmart in Towson Place, which also gave out tickets for the biggest deals.
Alfred Jackson, a claims adjuster from Baltimore, blamed his sister for dragging him to the stores at midnight. But he wasn't complaining too much, since he nabbed a 42-inch television for $478. He got a Blu-ray disc player for $69 to go with it.
Not everybody was happy with the Black Friday experience.
Tristan Hiemstra arrived at Walmart in Towson at 7:30 p.m. Thursday to buy an iPod that came with a $50 gift card. Seven hours later, she said, employees announced they didn't have any iPods available. Hiemstra still walked away with some other good deals on Play-Doh and crayons for her kids, and a Wii and PlayStation 2 gaming system she planned on selling on eBay. But she wasn't sure she'd be back again for another Black Friday.
"This is the first and last time I am doing this," she said. "I came out here to brave it for the gift card, but I won't be doing it again."
Meg Meyer and her daughter, Deanna Boyd, traditionally avoid the stores on Black Friday. And this year was no exception. They ducked into a movie theater in Harbor East for a late-morning screening of "Waiting for 'Superman'" instead.
"I would never go shopping the day after Thanksgiving," says Boyd, 24, a lobbyist in Washington. "I've heard all the horror stories."
Baltimore Sun reporters Jamie Smith Hopkins, Lorraine Mirabella and Eileen Ambrose contributed to this article.