It had the makings of one of the more civilized "Black Friday" shopping days in recent memory, with no frantic parents scrambling to be the first in the door for a Furby or Sleep 'n' Snore Ernie. But then Wal-Mart put 19-inch color TVs on sale for less than $100.
The sale -- on one of the year's most heavily promoted, if not busiest, shopping days -- lasted four hours. But it took just two hours for shoppers at Wal-Mart in White Marsh to clear all 1,200 of $99.99 TVs from the shelves.
"It was mass chaos," said Carolyn Kelly, who with her sister, Karen, was one of the first of hundreds of shoppers who stormed the selling floor at 6 a.m.
But well worth it, she said.
Color TVs, computers, microwaves and VCRs were some of discounted "adult" toys prompting holiday shoppers to fight dense fog and jammed parking lots yesterday and descend on Baltimore area shopping hubs before sunrise.
Consumers benefiting from the strongest U.S. economy in history proved willing to spend -- though more likely to buy at a discount. Early shoppers were doing more than looking, as many dragged shopping bags and sacks of gifts through malls and downtown streets.
The traditional kickoff to the holiday shopping season startedas early as 6 a.m. at many of the discount and toy stores, many of which ran early morning promotions to lure shoppers. Some area malls and centers got off to a slower start, with traffic picking up later in the day. No one toy dominated the day. Instead, Pokemon paraphernalia topped toy lists.
"Everyone's saying the malls are pretty full, and it looks like shoppers are getting out across most of the nation," said William F. Ford, senior economic adviser to TeleCheck Services Inc., the nation's biggest check authorization company.
At the White Marsh Wal-Mart, sales early in the day were driven by promotions -- the $99.99 TVs and Hewlett-Packard computers for $789. Many people carted off two TVs at a time.
Even after supplies ran out, shoppers refused to leave empty-handed. Tonya Genius, a financial coordinator at Sinai Hospital shopping with her mother and cousin, came too late for a TV or VCR, but instead found crock pots and Pokemon toys on sale.
Outside the store, traffic backed up on Route 43 as shoppers tried to negotiate their way into the discounter's packed parking lot.
"It's a madhouse," said Charles Williams of Baltimore, loading a TV into his car.
Known as Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving kicks off retailers' most profitable time of year, between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
"The importance of the day is more of an emotional one rather than for sales," said John Konarski, senior vice president of the International Council of Shopping Centers. "It's not what many people think it is."
For one thing, it's no longer the biggest shopping day of the year. The Saturday before Christmas typically has the day after Thanksgiving beat in sheer sales volume.
The name dates to the turn of the century, when retailers expected to go into the black. Today it has come to mean a day of promotions and giveaways. It's also one of longest shopping days as retailers extend their hours in a scramble to get a share of the $185 billion consumers are expected to spend this season.
"This is the most competitive era ever for retail, and because of that people have got to pull out all the stops. It will be heavily promotional, more so than last year," Konarski said.
By mid-morning yesterday, shoppers crowded around a bin of discounted tools at Sears, Roebuck and Co. in White Marsh Mall, grabbing pliers, screwdrivers and pocket sockets nearly as fast as Terri Johnson, stock manager, could re-stock them.
Promotions also drew consumers to Kay-Bee Toys in the mall, where 500 shoppers lined up at 6 a.m. Later in the morning, shoppers waited outside, and a few were let in every 15 minutes. Those outside didn't mind. They had their shopping done for them by Kay-Bee workers, who took orders then disappeared into the store to search for the toys.
"This is a really good idea. If you have to stand in line, this is the way to stand in line," said Deborah Price of Rosedale.
Eleven-year-old Lacey Ford got her first lesson in Black Friday yesterday, doing her own Christmas shopping for the first time, accompanied by her grandmother. Taking a break on a bench in White Marsh Mall, sporting antlers and a Rudolph nose, she showed off gifts for her mom and cousin.
"I don't mind coming out, but at 5: 30?" she said, rolling her eyes.
In late afternoon at Anne Arundel County's Marley Station Mall, shoppers circled the parking lot in search of spaces.
A few miles north along Ritchie Highway at Glen Burnie Mall, shoppers parked illegally or circled until they found a spot. Inside, the mall was bustling.
Sue Mangum of Linthicum said she started shopping at 9 a.m. yesterday, beginning at Marley. She gave up waiting to get into Kay-Bee Toys, then hit a few other stores before stopping at Glen Burnie Mall in search of the hard-to-get Pokemon items. Toys R Us was sold out, she said, adding that she still got other toys for her 10-year-old son Patrick.
"I'm almost half done," she said, adding: "My feet hurt."
Cranberry Mall in Westminster was full of shoppers who said they never shop on Black Friday.
"Usually we go sit and make fun of people who go out on Black Friday," said Anthony Rodig, a Westminster native, sitting beside his child and a shopping bag.
By midafternoon, the mall was crowded, not swamped. Seating in the food court was about half-full, and the line to see Santa was short.
"It's a let-down," said Krista Callahan, manager at Maurices, a specialty fashion shop. "This is like a regular Friday or Saturday for us."
Retail analysts are calling for a 3 percent to 6 percent jump in sales compared to last holiday season. Though the increase won't be as great as it was from 1997 to 1998, it should be a solid season, analysts believe.
"The best predictor of the season is how the year been going, and it's been a strong year for retail," Konarski said.
Even the fire on Nov. 9 that destroyed five businesses and four apartments on Ellicott City's historic Main Street couldn't deter shoppers. The narrow streets teemed with people, many of them holding shopping bags. Cars inched through the streets. Although some merchants complain that business is down because of the fire, others say that the fire has drawn more people to Main Street than usual.
Marlene Goode, an employee at Country Crafters on Main Street across from the fire-damaged Main Street Blues building, said business was booming.
"I was supposed to open at 10, and I got down here at 10 after 9 and I started doing business like crazy," Goode said.
Sun staff writers David Greene, Amy Oakes, Andrea Siegel and Alice Lukens contributed to this article.