Jesus Rybinol was the first customer at electronics and furniture store Urner's when it opened at 8 a.m. Friday, but although he'd been in line for hours, he was already on his third store.
"I ate a big Thanksgiving dinner yesterday and took a long nap, and after that I got up and read the paper and saw all the specials," he said. "I figured, I can wait in line all night. I slept all afternoon."
Rybol, a 33-year-old college student, was among the throngs rising early--or not sleeping at all--to get the deep discounts retailers offer in the frenzied annual rite that is Black Friday.
Black Friday is so-named because it is supposedly when retailer income statements move from the red into the black. Eclipsed by the two weekends before Christmas, it's not the biggest shopping day of the year. But Black Friday is considered a critical gauge of the health of the coming holiday shopping season.
Few expect this season to be strong.
"I don't think anybody's excited," said Hans Sternberg, a Baton Rouge, La., retail consultant and author of the book "We Were Merchants," (Louisiana State University Press, $29.95) about his family's department store.
"Last year, merchants got caught with their pants down," Sternberg said. "They had big inventory and had no business or bad business."
This year, he said, retailers will "produce their own lackluster Christmas because they have wisely ordered less inventory and hired fewer seasonal employees. It's the right thing to do, but it's a self-fulfilling prophesy."
The National Retail Federation's 2009 Holiday Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey, conducted by BIGresearch, found U.S. consumers plan to spend an average of $682.74 on holiday-related shopping, a 3.3 percent drop from last year's $705.01.
Publicly traded retailers won't be reporting official numbers for a few days, but locally, traffic in high-end stores seemed to be slower than at discount stores, where even finding a parking spot was a struggle.
Toys and electronics were moving briskly.
Rybinol's first stop was the Wal-Mart at Northwest Promenade, which already had a line when he showed up 11:30 p.m. Thursday. But he was among the first 78 customers, which entitled him to purchase a Compaq laptop computer for $298.
Then he was off to Sports Authority for $49.99 Bladerunner in-line skates. Urner's door-buster special was a $599 50-inch plasma LG television.
Matthew Wolfe, 46, was in line prior to Urner's opening but the plasmas were sold out before he could get one.
He stayed and shopped, anyway.
"I've got an old TV with a converter box, so I really need a digital set," he said.
That is, of course, the point. The rationale for offering door-buster discounts is that shoppers will buy other items, compensating for losses on the bargains.
The strategy is still working despite the recession, said Urner's marketing director David Perkins, whose workday started shortly after 6 a.m..
"I think over the years we've built this tradition of Black Friday being the time for the best deals, so people are still coming, as you saw from the line outside," he said.
Digital televisions are among this year's big sellers, Perkins said.
Some buyers are stragglers who are just getting around to responding to the digital conversion. Over the summer, most of the nation's television stations began broadcasting exclusively in digital, so owners of older analog televisions had to upgrade or hook up a digital-to-analog converter box.
Then, too, there's something inherently appealing about flat-screen televisions, Perkins said. "It's a lot sexier than a washer and dryer."
Ymorjay Borja, 18, of Delano, snagged an iPod Touch at the Northwest Promenade Wal-Mart for $199.99. It came with a $50 gift card.
He had to rise at 3 a.m. to get it, but with nearly a dozen relatives waiting in line with him, it was a fun, party atmosphere.
"I'd been wanting an iPod for a long time," Borja said. "It was worth it."
Apparel wasn't moving as quickly as electronics unless there was a special. Places offering door-busters had long lines.
"This is a day that draws people looking for early bird specials," said Margaret Whitfield, senior analyst at the New Jersey office of the brokerage Sterne Agee. "I was walking around my local mall this morning, and the best traffic was at (children's clothing store) Gymboree, which had 30 percent off before noon, and (teen clothing store) Aeropostale, which had a $10 hoodie that sold out early."
Retired construction worker Ron Jirack, in town from the Las Vegas area visiting a friend's family, said he likes shopping early because of the deals.
He took full advantage of attractive pricing meant to entice shoppers with tight budgets.
"I spent more this year than last year," Jirack said.
By 9:30 a.m., he had finished with his whole list except for a quick stop at the 99-cent Only store on Mount Vernon Avenue to buy wrapping paper and bows.
"I do a good job with wrapping," he bragged. "People hate to open their gifts because they look so nice."
Shoppers were mostly well-behaved Friday. Private security and Bakersfield police responded to a fight between shoppers inside the Wal-Mart Supercenter on Colony Street about 4:55 a.m.. There were no arrests.
Last year, a Long Island Wal-Mart employee died in a stampede. To control crowds, many stores this year issued numbered certificates to early birds, eliminating the need to sprint for the best deals.