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.
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.
"I boycotted going out yesterday," Moss said, pushing a shopping cart through Toys "R" Us in Glen Burnie about 8:30 a.m.
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.
Five men robbed a 14-year-old boy of his shopping bag outside Arundel Mills mall in Hanover after he walked out of a Bed Bath & Beyond store about 2 a.m. Friday, Anne Arundel County police said. The victim told police that one of the men punched him as another grabbed his purchases.
Arundel Mills wouldn't comment directly on the crime, instead releasing a statement saying that thousands of customers had been bargain-hunting "without incident since midnight," when the mall opened.
Around lunchtime, a security guard patrolled past the Bed Bath & Beyond on a Segway. Melody Creswell of Severna Park, walking out of the store a moment later, said the mugging is a prime reason she doesn't care to join the before-dawn portion of the shopping frenzy.
"There is no sale that is worth standing in line in the middle of the night," said Creswell, 41, who started the day at 6 a.m. "My kids don't need anything that badly."
Protests mingled with shopping this year as Walmart workers unhappy about hours, wages and working conditions walked off the job at some stores across the country Thursday and Friday — including those in Severn, Laurel and Landover Hills.
"The people who work for Walmart are in a hard place, a very difficult place," said Cynthia Murray, an employee at the Laurel store who is a leader with Organization United for Respect at Walmart, the group that helped organize the walkout. "A whole lot of things need to be better, but I think today was a really great day, because I think today, [store officials] finally are truly listening."
It's unclear whether the protests dinged Walmart's bottom line. The company said Black Friday crowds were larger than last year's and came on the heels of 22 million customers in the stores on Thanksgiving.
The "high traffic period" from 8 p.m. to midnight Thursday produced sales of almost 5,000 items per second, Walmart said in a statement.
On Friday, shoppers came and went in waves throughout the region. Lisa Bisenius, general manager of White Marsh Mall, said her parking lot was at 90 percent capacity at 1 a.m., and she expected customer traffic to hit a second peak around lunchtime.
That proved true at The Mall in Columbia, where parking lots and garages were nearly full at noon.
"Every year we say we're not going to [shop on Black Friday], and then we do it anyway," said Shirley Whitcomb, 66, of Glen Burnie, seated at a table in the food court with her family.
She'd already spent $600, a chunk of it on a Nintendo Wii game system for her 6-year-old grandson. She figured she'd be spending more on gifts this Black Friday than in years past.
"I like to give," she said.
So does Jacqueline Hill of Baltimore, but she expects her spending will drop this year to $700, down from $1,500 last year.
With nine grandchildren to shop for, this was her bargain-hunting strategy: She went to Toys "R" Us while one of her daughters headed to Walmart and the other drove to Kmart. They phoned back and forth to make sure they were getting the best prices.
Hill, 54, was particularly happy with the Fisher-Price Power Wheels toy she picked up for $50, half off the usual price.
"Things are on sale, so I'm kind of staying within budget," she said.
Kelsey Richards, 16, finished her holiday shopping Friday. At lunch, she was taking a well-deserved rest on a bench near the Constellation at Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Next to her sat Brandon Lavender, 19 — her polar opposite, giftwise.
The Rosedale resident figures he'll get started a bit closer to Christmas. Like Christmas Eve.
"It gives me more time to think," he said.