In the hours leading up to Target's midnight opening, the atmosphere was like a late-night blockbuster movie premiere. Shoppers bundled up in coats, scarves and blankets, waiting it out with friends and family in hopes of snagging some major deals. More than a few people brought snacks, coffee and folding chairs to pass the cold hours more comfortably. Some tipped over shopping carts for a haphazard perch off of the icy concrete.
Word came down the line that Starbuck's on Kettleman Lane was open. That news sent more than a few runners headed across the parking lot, leaving the rest of the party to hold their place.
Among the very first in line were Mike Vosburgh and his son Shayne Vosburgh.
Their family scheduled the Thanksgiving meal at noon so they could stake a claim outside the store by 3:30 p.m. for the midnight opening.
"We showed up to see how many people were there, and there was no one here," said Shayne Vosburgh. So Mike Vosburgh jumped out of the car and began the line that would eventually wind around Staples to the driveway behind the store and out to Lower Sacramento Road. The No. 1 goal was scoring a 46-inch flat screen LCD HDTV for $298.
Several early birds were in line for the same deal.
"The prices are going down a little bit each year," said Annette Woods, who camped outside starting at 5:15 p.m. "Last year, the 40-inch one was $300."
The traditional, hardcore, 4 a.m. shoppers took up their stations throughout the afternoon. But as evening fell, they were joined by droves of people who found waiting up until midnight easier than climbing out of a warm bed in the early hours. As a result, "There's so many people!" became a constant refrain.
Joining the line as it grew behind the shopping center was Sandy Henry, of Acampo, who said she preferred the midnight opening. She was looking for a three-wheeled Razor scooter for her 8-year-old son Donovan.
"To be perfectly honest, I've never had to wait in line," she said. "I'm not sure if $30 is worth this."
Once the doors opened, the real work began. Security officers let in groups of 30 to 40 at a time. Shoppers walked very briskly to pick up their TVs and iPods, then took their places in a checkout line that wrapped from the front of the store to the seasonal displays in the back.
"It was really hectic for the first couple of hours, but after 4 a.m. it was dead," said store manager Mark Day. Despite the crowds and a little pushing and shoving, Day said the hours passed without any major incidents.
Things got underway even earlier across Kettleman Lane at Walmart.
Walmart tried a different Black Friday approach this year, but the results were mixed. Usually, shoppers form a line outside and come in to an empty store right as the sale hours begin.
Instead, sale items displayed around the store were covered by black plastic bags. People were asked to form lines around the items they wanted to purchase and wait until 10 p.m. to get started, or until midnight for flatscreen TVs and other major electronics. That didn't happen.
Most of the bags and signs were torn off the displays by 9:30 p.m. while shoppers dug through piles of shirts and pajama pants to find the size and color they wanted. Merchandise hit the floor and stayed there since employees couldn't get through the crowd to clean it up. Customers stepped over damaged displays and discarded signs to get their hands on the discounted products. Those lucky enough to snag a cart found it difficult to make their way up and down the aisles.
Not everything was on sale. The store blocked off some aisles with tape and arrows in an attempt to guide shoppers through the store in an orderly fashion. These, too, were ignored as people tried to find a faster path to the exit. Some shoppers entered the store with a long list in hand, but took one look at the massive crowd and made a beeline for the exit.
"You can't even move in there," said Amber Chamizo, of Lodi, who left Walmart empty-handed. "They definitely didn't set it up right."
Checkout lanes opened precisely at 10 p.m. and carts piled high with toys, home decor and kitchen appliances flooded out.
Vivian Salas and Andrea Padilla, both of Lodi, were among the first to exit after the registers opened.
"They have some really great sales," said Salas, pushing a shopping cart packed with a Leapster gaming device and other children's toys.
"We got in and out," added Padilla.
Jeanie Webb, of Lodi, picked up a tall stack of presents for her seven grandchildren. She just got a job in Dixon after four months of unemployment and was thrilled to have spending money in time for Christmas. Black Friday bargains helped stretch her budget.
But was it worth wading through the madness?
"You know, I'm not sure anymore," she mused as she scanned the parking lot in search of her car. After packing up her purchases, Target was her next stop.
Several shoppers and store employees reported a fight had broken out between two women in the electronics department shortly after 10 p.m., though store managers were unable to confirm on Friday. Two Lodi police officers entered the store, but they made no arrests or reports of incidents.
Through it all, more people kept arriving. The parking lot turned into a maze of double-parked cars and what seemed like endless honking.
Calls to Walmart on Friday at noon indicated that the pressing crowds had dissipated somewhat, but things remained busy. For several stores, the sales continued until normal closing hours Friday evening.
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.