LINCOLN – Don't believe everything you read.
That was no flat-screen TV in the box, like the label said. That was Alex Camperone's trophy.
It was his prize for spending most of a drizzly and raw, post-Thanksgiving night waiting outside the Target store at Lincoln Mall.
Those other folks in a line of customers that snaked halfway around the mall, waiting, along with Camperone, for the store to open – they were Camperone's rivals in a hungry quest for doorbuster bargains.
“That line, is it still out there?” Camperone said half-seriously as he wheeled his TV-laden carriage past the registers. “I kind of wanted to walk past them with my TV, you know, just to rub it in.”
As Camperone did the consumer equivalent of an end-zone dance on his way out the door, hundreds of other customers blitzed the aisles of Target in search of price-slashed electronics, home appliances, toys, musical instruments, DVDs and more.
It was a microcosm of a consumer ritual playing out (injury-free, with any luck) at retail stores from Woonsocket to Washington state as merchandisers officially kicked off the holiday shopping season on the day after Thanksgiving – Black Friday. The hallmarks? Big discounts, pre-dawn store openings – and scads of customers piling in early to take advantage of what are, often, limited supplies of some of the most sought-after items.
The symptoms of Black Friday madness were all too evident at Target, which opened at 4 a.m. to accommodate a small army of bargain hunters. Some had staked out a spot outside the door as early as 7:30 the night before to get to the head of the line vying for Target's marquee doorbuster – a Westinghouse 40-inch HDTV for $298 – $250 less than the regular price.
Jessica Bush, 24, of Cumberland, was one of the first to arrive. It was cold and damp most of the night, but Bush was prepared: When it started to rain fairly steadily around mid-morning, she and her friend, Alex Cotto, 26, of Woonsocket, pitched a tent and climbed inside.
“It's not really enjoyable, but I like a good deal,” said Bush.
Others bundled up in parkas, stuffed chemical hand-warmers into their gloves, and whiled away the hours chatting it up with new-found friends.
Lincoln Mall's Ocean State Job Lot, which opened at midnight to celebrate Black Friday, turned out to be a godsend for Dave Marcet and Marla Bileau of Woonsocket. When the rain came down, they dashed over to the nearby discount spot to buy umbrellas and a waterproof tarp for protection.
“The TV is a gift,” said Marcet. “They better appreciate it.”
Not long after 3 a.m., Target workers came outside and distributed tickets guaranteeing that the first 30 people in line who came for the Westinghouse TV would get one.
“It's kind of like winning the lottery,” one man said.
The tickets were apparently part of Target's overall strategy to curtail the mad rush for merchandise after the doors open. Though few notable outbreaks have been reported locally in recent years, Black Friday stampedes elsewhere have often been marred by injury, fisticuffs and even fatalities.
But the ticket strategy seemed to work for Target, where shoppers walked into the store at a pace that was calm and orderly compared to last year's brisk frenzy.
“No running please, no running,” security workers stationed at the entrance repeated as customers filed past.
To cut down on confusion and keep the traffic flowing, Target also distributed special maps with aisle-by-aisle directions for locating some two dozen items billed as doorbusters in the flyer stuffed into holiday newspapers the day before.
Among the hottest tickets: the Gavrin Nuvi GPS device, $159, selling for half the regular price; the Nikon Coolpix digital camera, $79, a discount of about $60; and the Wii Fit accessory, which was $33 less than the regular price of $100.
But you can't please everybody on Black Friday. As the battery of brazen bargain hunters coursed through the aisles, they swooped into the electronics department with a fury that must have made the clerks in linens feel like yesterday's news. Some of the customers were miffed that Target didn't do more to stop others from cutting ahead of them and take orders on a first-come, first-serve basis.
“You don't mind waiting but when it's supposed to be your turn it's your turn,” one woman fumed. “It's not fair.”
With retailers shooting to shake off the lethargy of recession with their best holiday workout in at least two seasons, Linda Peck of Burrillville doesn't see how they can go wrong with Black Friday promotions. It doesn't matter if many, or even most, of the customers who waited for hours with their hearts set on buying a specific item don't succeed in getting what they want. The whole point is getting them into the store, she said.
“A lot of people aren't going to get the TV,” said Peck, one of the first people in line. “I”m sure they're going to be browsing and buy other things.”
The day after Thanksgiving is often portrayed as the busiest shopping day of the year in the retail industry. While Black Friday sometimes lives up to its reputation, merchandisers often fare better on Super Saturday – the last Saturday before Christmas.
Theories on the origin of the name Black Friday vary, but it's thought to have stuck because of its importance in pushing stores' profit-and-loss sheets from the red ink of deficits into the black.
Come rain, snow or, perhaps, even a kick in the shin, chances are consumers like Camperone – the guy with the trophy TV – will keep showing up for this holiday shopping ritual so long as they find the discounts they crave.
“I saved $110.99,” said the bookstore clerk who's studying at CCRI. “That's like a half a week's pay for me so waiting outside all that time wasn't so bad.”