For many Black Friday shoppers, fighting the crowds is a team effort

Amid the bargains, holiday music and free eggnog, chaos reigned at shopping spots around the nation Friday.

Retailers found reason to celebrate as big crowds gathered even before Thursday's turkeys were carved. But for many mall visitors, it was an event more to be endured than enjoyed; parking was all but impossible, and many of the best deals disappeared quickly.

Black Friday has become a day when dedicated shoppers employ creative strategies to secure deals, often working in electronically connected teams armed with lists carefully crafted through advance scouting trips and detailed analysis of advertising circulars. For the junior partners in these shopping squads, that can mean endlessly circling the parking lot for an elusive space, holding a place in any number of lines and lugging bags full of stuff during a day of selfless waiting.

At Orange County's South Coast Plaza on Friday, brothers Sean and Dylan Ulrich gripped the handles of bags that weren't theirs as they scanned the mall's surging humanity for any sign of the rightful owners — their sister, father and their father's girlfriend.

"We're watching these bags while the rest of our crew is in Victoria's Secret shopping right now," said Sean Ulrich, 20.

"Sometimes you've got to just grin and bear it, and hang out outside while they do their business," he said, sighing and rolling his eyes. "We'll probably be here about another few hours."

Santa Ana residents Monica Ferreira and husband Ralph Garcia, both 27, arrived at Sears South Coast Plaza at 8 p.m. Thursday and faced a low of 41 degrees before dawn Friday.

It was "cold, cold, cold, frustrating and stressful," said Garcia, who was looking to buy a washer and dryer on sale for $600, down from $1,400, for Ferreira's mother. "My mother-in-law put me in this spot!" he quipped.

J.R. Reynosa slumped in a stylish leather chair at South Coast's Abercrombie & Fitch, listening to the head-pounding pulsation of European techno, surrounded by swarms of teens with tight jeans and popped collars. He hadn't seen his wife for the last hour and a half, even though they were in the same store.

During the morning, Reynosa had carried six loads of bags to the car, parked in one of the mall's 13,890 spaces. Just finding the parking spot was a half-hour ordeal.

"Shopping for me is just letting my wife wander around so I can sit down someplace," said Reynosa, a former Orange County police officer. "All I can do is go with the flow, man."

Sometimes the burden of holiday co-shopping is borne by the young. Tammy Phan, 14, of Rowland Heights was given the task of finding gifts for 28 extended family members in a single day.

Though her parents split off to shop on their own, she was the one stuck holding the bags. Sitting on a planter, legs dangling and reading a comic book, the shy high school student enjoyed some momentary relaxation after shopping for about four hours.

"It's really boring waiting in lines, buying clothes I think they would like," Phan said.

For Aliso Viejo resident Eric Walsh, 28, shopping hell is lugging around women's clothing from Banana Republic.

Taking a break with his son tucked in a stroller, Walsh tried to calculate the amount of time each stuffed bag of pink and beige apparel cost him.

"About 21/2 hours," he said, smirking. The journey started at 8 a.m., fighting the crowds and doing the holiday shuffle to the cash register.

"It's like standing in line for an hour at Disneyland for a 2-minute ride," said Walsh, who added that his wife stood in line at the Gap to save 50% on clothes. "Was it worth it? I don't know, maybe to her."

When it comes to Black Friday, A.J. Castro, 27, knows what he's doing.

At 11 p.m. on Thanksgiving, the Burbank actor and several warmly bundled friends grabbed spots near the front of the line at the Target at the Burbank Empire Center, having mapped out the store's layout and thoroughly studied its circular.

One member was angling for an X-box console, the rest were going for cheap televisions.

"Women, children, it doesn't matter," Castro joked. "No one is standing in my way."

Said his friend, actress Jenna Nickerson, 23, of Sherman Oaks: "You've got to attack it; you have to have a plan. We're helping out the economy."

Times staff writers Shan Li and Nardine Saad contributed to this report.

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