Cecilia Auth went to Toys "R" Us at 4 a.m. Friday with one item on her list: a Star Wars All Terrain Tactical Enforcer for her 7-year-old son.
But when she got to the store on Pulaski Highway in Rosedale, she was so impressed by the deals that she filled a shopping cart with presents for her son, daughter, two nieces and a neighbor.
"I didn't realize that all these toys were on sale. I just decided to finish all my [holiday] shopping today." said Auth, who guessed she had saved about $260, or the equivalent of a BGE bill.
Auth was one of thousands of Baltimore-area bargain-hunters who woke before sunrise to take advantage of the big discounts typical of Black Friday, which traditionally launches the holiday buying season. Some showed up hours before, skipping Thanksgiving dinner, taking naps in sleeping bags and huddling in blankets.
The shopping season started early this year, as retailers competed to lure consumers worried about the tight credit and job markets. Sears began offering Black Friday specials on Halloween, and others followed suit. Old Navy and Walmart opened on Thanksgiving, leaving some to wonder whether Black Friday would be as frenzied as it normally is.
But retailers and mall owners said the day was busier than in the past few years, and consumers seemed to be spending a little more. There was also a bit less chaos, as retailers focused more on crowd control in response to an incident last year at a Long Island, N.Y., Walmart, where a security guard was trampled to death.
Friday, a Walmart in Upland, Calif., closed for more than two hours after customers inside started fighting over merchandise before 3 a.m., the Los Angeles Times reported. No arrests were made, no injuries were reported and the store reopened about 6 a.m.
Across the Baltimore region, lines of eager shoppers formed during the night. The Rosedale Toys "R" Us opened at midnight and had a line that wrapped around the building twice; by 6 a.m. the store was still packed with shoppers pushing carts filled with toys. At the Best Buy in White Marsh, the line wound around the back of the building an hour before the 5 a.m. opening.
And more than 300 people were waiting to enter when the Kohl's department store at Severna Park MarketPlace opened at 4 a.m., said store manager Rob Gurley. Shoppers told him they were "looking to stretch their dollar."
There were no lines outside the White Marsh Walmart at 3:30 a.m. because the store was open for 24 hours on Thanksgiving. But small lines formed throughout the store as people waited to pounce on laptops, flat-screen televisions and other items slated to go on sale at 5 a.m. The bargain items, roped off and covered, had signs that read "Don't touch."
The parking lot at White Marsh Mall was filled to capacity by 9 a.m., and the mall gave out 1,000 free gift bags in 30 minutes. Lisa Bisenius, general manager for White Marsh and Towson Town Center malls, said shoppers were buying more as they took advantage of bargains and seemed to be feeling better about the economy. "It's busier than it has been in a couple of years, as far as we can remember," she said.
By midmorning, shoppers who had spent $100 or more at Towson Town waited in line to get a $10 gift card to be used at any General Growth Properties mall.
Among those in line were Shawn Young of Middle River and her daughters, Bethany, 15, and Kristen, 21. They had been shopping at the mall since it opened at 6 a.m. and spent about $700 at about 20 stores.
"That is crazy," Shawn Young said. "We didn't know we had spent that much until we added up all the receipts." She said they save all year so they can buy gifts with cash, and they try to stick to a budget for each child.
The National Retail Federation, which will release weekend sales results on Sunday, said the day was gearing up to be better than 2008's. The group predicts that as many as 134 million people will shop this weekend, more than the 128 million people who planned to last year. The International Council of Shopping Centers says more than a quarter of shoppers planned to go out the day after Thanksgiving - named Black Friday because it's the day that most merchants' annual ledgers go from red ink to black.
"I think the bargains are too big to pass up this weekend," said Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman with the retail federation. "Large retailers have come out and said they are very happy with their traffic, and they're seeing toys and even some of the midpriced electronic items go fast."
"Retailers understand the consumer has been cautious this year," said David Herskovits, a partner at Deloitte & Touche, which does retail consulting. "People are starting to feel in the holiday spirit and better about what is going on. Retailers will do everything they can to get consumers to their doors."
The Macy's in Towson Town Center had a rush of customers at the 5 a.m. opening, when the store promoted specials on 250 items, including jewelry and boots, said Jain Trader, store manager.
"Traffic is good," she said. "The consumer is shopping carefully. They're looking for value, and they're spending carefully."
Leslie Murray of Severna Park came to Kohl's near her home for her first Black Friday shopping trip because she had set a per-person spending limit for presents.
"We're on a budget this year, so I thought, why not give it a shot?" said Murray, pushing a cart full of toys. "It's got to help."
The busy Black Friday isn't necessarily a sign that the entire holiday season will be robust.
The retail federation predicts a 1 percent sales decrease, the second-weakest holiday season since the group began tracking sales more than 40 years ago. Last year was the only other time the group has reported a spending decline: Sales dropped 3.4 percent in November and December.
Linda Wilson, 55, was the first person in line at the White Marsh Best Buy, showing up at 2:30 p.m. on Thanksgiving. The coveted position won her a coupon for a 50-inch flat-screen television for $897 - a $400 savings. The Perry Hall resident, who runs a landscaping office, shopped with her daughter in what has become an annual tradition. They also planned to get a laptop and a camera.
Wilson said that even though some retailers held sales before Black Friday, it is still the best day to find the steepest discounts.
Melinda Cook, 31, who was fifth in line at Best Buy, came with two aunts, a niece and a cousin. They bought five flat-screen televisions and four computers. The Baltimore resident, who runs a medical day care, saved money for a month just to shop on Black Friday.
"You can't beat the deals," she said.
Not everyone was happy.
Ed Ohle, 52, a computer technician, went to the White Marsh Walmart at 4:30 a.m. in hopes of nabbing a laptop, only to find that the store had given out tickets well before he arrived. He was upset because store ads said the specials were available from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. But a spokeswoman said the store can give out tickets beforehand.
Arundel Mills mall in Hanover opened at midnight, but at 10 a.m., drivers were still crawling along the vast parking lot in search of an empty space. The crowds seemed bigger than last year to Kent Island resident Carol Davenport, 66, but the sales struck daughter Jenna Davenport as less tempting. They also brought along Carol's niece Kim Grier.
They expected to buy less this year, saving instead for a cruise to the Bahamas. It's already booked, so that means no big-screen televisions.
"If I could afford one, I'd be a very happy person," Grier said ruefully.
Black Friday shopping has become a tradition for Anne Murphy, her daughter, Karyn Yager, and her 10-year-old granddaughter, Drew, all of Towson. They found some good deals at Nordstrom early Friday.
"I really splurge at Christmas but not this year," said Murphy, who said her family had agreed to give fewer gifts per person this year. "It's the economy and the unknown. We don't know what's going to happen in the next few months."
At Belvedere Square in Northeast Baltimore, few morning shoppers browsed in the stores, but managers expected traffic to pick up for evening promotions.
Sheldon Stump, who lives near the food and specialty store market, had some extra time before meeting a friend for lunch and ended up in Tuesday Morning - though she tries to resist "being sucked into being a consumer" on Black Friday. Still, she found some toys for her two grandchildren, a top, a doll, some blocks, "stuff you just don't see in Target and Walmart," she said.
Kate Wilcox, 26, of Charles Village, said tough economic times have forced her to rethink gift-giving this year.
"I'm not planning to do gifts at all this year," said Wilcox, who recently moved to Baltimore to live with her parents and works part time at Towson Town's Apple Store. "I have a job that I feel good about but I had a hard time getting a job this year."
She said she might give cards or make gifts, but that "no one expects anything."
Baltimore Sun reporters Lorraine Mirabella and Jamie Smith Hopkins contributed to this article.