Some jumped in place as the sun began to sink, grabbing shopping lists as sacred texts. In hasty phone calls, they compared who was on the other line, debating whether Target really was the cheapest place to buy a PlayStation. Some, working in teams, have outlined their battle plans: you stand in line at Apple. You get a Hatchimal. You hold a point in the queue.
Black Friday's spoils used to be open only to those who wanted to get up early, face the crowd and endure long lines. Now, if buyers suffer for them or buy online from the comfort of their homes, many of the deals are more or less the same. Even the deadline is flexible: a highly successful business day has turned into a long weekend. This year, about 71% of holiday shoppers will shop in stores or online between Thanksgiving and Cyber Monday, according to a Deloitte survey.
For many of the top players, staying competitive means going live on sales before the turkey is in the brine. About 500 retailers launched Black Friday deals on Tuesday, according to RetailMeNot.
So why bother facing the cold and the crowds? Maybe, said Steven Barr, consumer markets specialist at PwC, either because there is something more powerful in the chaos.
"On a day like Black Friday, it's not about convenience. It's purely about excitement," Barr said. "A website can not give you goosebumps."
For some, it's the high that comes from go-toe to toe with other shoppers over the most precious deals of the day. For others, it is the gratification born of immediacy, the haste of holding the boxes in their hands. Or maybe it's the symbolism in sacrifice, the stories and battle scars shared after the gifts are unwrapped.
When Target finally opened at 5:00 p.m. On Thursday, shoppers rushed to the doors of what appeared to be the most educated race in the world. Inside, the order disintegrated. People dodged. Some wore shopping carts like tanks, making their way through the crowd.
"Oh my God, I can not believe we're going to have an Xbox," a girl yelled to her older sister as they ran ahead.
"Do not get too excited too early," her sister warned. "We can get there and they'll be gone."
When they reached the pyramid of white boxes, they seized one cautiously with small fingers. All around them, the chaos was shaking. Babies cried. The parents grunted as they balanced colossal TV boxes in too small carts.
The girls were happily unconscious.
"I think I'm going to die of happiness," said the boy.
At Walmart, at the end of the Mason road, the doors had been open since dawn, but the turmoil did not begin until sundown. Clients lined up in the afternoon, while the items they coveted were still sheathed in plastic, under signs that said "it's not on sale until Thursday at 6pm."
Mathew Ishak, 21, looked calm as he wandered the halls on his fourth Black Friday as a Walmart employee. Over the years, traffic has decreased incrementally. Unlike a fight he had ended two years ago – a man punched a woman in the face because of a TV, he said – he thought Black Friday was, well, tamed.
"There are fewer people every year because of online shopping," Ishak said. "If it was not for the deals, they can only get here, I do not think many people would come."
Ishak's experience reflects a growing trend. Deloitte's survey showed that nearly two-thirds of respondents say they will take advantage of the first deals offered online. A survey by Adobe Analytics predicts Black Friday's online sales could reach $ 5.9 billion – an increase of more than 17 percent over last year.
But you would not know that at the Kenwood Towne Center in Cincinnati on the morning of the official day of the doorknob. By eight o'clock on Friday morning, finding parking in any of the lots of the mall was a feat of its own. Officials stood at the entrance to stores such as PacSun and Pink, attracting restless customers within a few at a time.
In Lululemon, it was almost impossible to separate the serpentine lines to the taster and check counters. It was hot and the customers exchanged their winter coats almost immediately.
"I'm out, that's awesome!" a girl with a ponytail shouted to her friends about the buzz of shoppers and "Baby, It's Cold Outside" on the store's speakers.
But as Cathy Bertke waited outside Justice's glittering cacophony, where her daughter Nicole was helping her 6-year-old daughter navigate Black Friday, she was comfortable. She and Nicole had been shopping together on Black Friday for decades. Every year they arrived early, in the calm between the nocturnal owls and the early birds. They learned to walk from one place to another and to evaluate what was worth waiting in line.
"If you're a real buyer, you can handle it," she said with a smile.
After years of fanfare, Black Friday has become synonymous with Christmas spirit.
"People have responded to early promotions – from the early Black Friday deals to free shipping – but the event still holds its place as a holiday tradition," said Rod Sides, Deloitte's retail and distribution leader in the United States.
At Sears, at the Eastgate Mall, Tonya Lewis hummed "Jingle Bells" to herself. She had come up at 3:45 and came armed with coupons she had been accumulating for weeks. Lewis, 57, and her friends had gone to Black Friday shopping together since they were 18 and had the stories to prove it. In one of her earlier endeavors, she said in a scandalous whisper, she saw a woman pull a penknife after losing her seat in the Walmart queue.
Not much has changed over the years for his staff. They still got up early and put on their most festive clothes. (Santa's cheerful face radiated from his leggings and hung from his ears.) They got in the car, played Christmas music, and exchanged stories while in line. Crowds and waiting are just part of the festivities.
"We have to be here in person," Lewis said. "We would never miss it."
This article was written by Taylor Telford and Rachel Siegel, reporters for The Washington Post.