Despite the worst predicted holiday shopping season in years, consumers still lined up in the dark and swarmed post-Thanksgiving store openings in the central San Joaquin Valley.
Black Friday shopping madness started at 10 p.m. Thursday and continued as stores and malls opened in the wee hours Friday.
A National Retail Federation survey predicts that as many as 128 million people will shop this three-day weekend, down from 135 million last year. The organization forecast bigger-than-ever discounts.
Preliminary reports from major retailers including Macy's, KB Toys Inc., Best Buy Co. and Toys 'R' Us and mall operators such as Taubman Centers Inc. (which runs 25 malls nationally) said the crowds were at least as large as last year's. But analysts said sales Friday may not match the year-ago levels as Americans, worried about layoffs, dwindling retirement accounts and tightening credit slash their holiday budgets, even for their children.
The day is not considered a prediction of how retailers will fare for the rest of the holiday shopping season, however.
"There have been years when we've seen a very solid Black Friday and kind of stumbled through the rest of the holiday season, like last year," retail federation spokesman Scott Krugman said.
The National Retail Federation will release its Black Friday weekend report Sunday.
At Fashion Fair mall, senior manager Mo Bagunu said foot traffic was strong all day.
"I always know things are busy when people are parking out by our building," said Bagunu, whose office is in the southeast corner of the Fresno mall's property. "I think our numbers are equal or above last year. And the mall is still very busy."
Valley shoppers start early
The group of friends is fueled by Red Bull energy drinks, and many of them stare at the store's employees on the opposite side of the glass doors.
"Remember that Mervyns commercial where the lady goes to the door and says, 'Open, open, open'? That's us," says Mimi George of Fresno.
Steep discounts are a sign of the times, and J.C. Penney is selling $70 leather jackets and $18.88 kids digital cameras, prices that expire at 1 p.m.
Victoria Villanueba and Raymond Juarez of Fresno have a game plan to get gifts for their 3-year-old daughter. He takes two steps to the left and grabs a baby princess doll for $9.99, marked down from $19.50. Next, he grabs a princess cash register -- the one thing his little girl asked for. Villanueba heads to the right and snaps up a Christmas wreath in the shape of Mickey Mouse's head and ears.
"You got to work as a team," Juarez says. "Get it and go. That's my motto."
The couple is in line at the cashier by 4:13 a.m.
Elsie Taylor of Fresno says she's always up this early and came to Macy's with a 40% off coupon looking for a cashmere sweater.
"It gave me something to do," she says.
"I saw that, and I didn't think we would ever get out of there," Alcala says. "No, thanks. That's too much for me."
More than 500 people were waiting for Kmart to open at 6 a.m. About 10 shoppers had been there since 1:30 a.m. The retailer offered half-price sales of everything from Razor scooters to women's coats.
Brandi Rieux and friend Sharon Roberts of Fresno were up at 3 a.m. Their reward: They estimate they saved at least $200.
"It really helps to save some money, especially in this economy," Rieux says. "Every little bit helps."
But was it worth it? Rieux says no: "She's not going to drag me out again next year."
The Lindsay woman says her family will cut back on Christmas shopping and opt for picking names for a gift exchange.
The main mission today is clothing for the two girls.
"This is going to be their Christmas," Depaz says.
"We're going to do the same amount of shopping. But I think with all the good sales, we'll probably end up spending less than last year," she says.
Items in the store were up to 70% off, and shoppers clogged checkout lines, she says. Midnight to 4 a.m. was "insane."
"I'm good," she says. "I was tired around 6, 7 and 8 o'clock. But things are starting to pick up, and I'm getting a little more energy."
Nearby at Polo Ralph Lauren, the end isn't in sight for general manager Allyn Peirce, who was there when the store opened at 10 p.m. Thursday and plans to work until 6 p.m. Friday -- and then return at 6 p.m. today.
"I'm a little tired, but excited about the day," Peirce says.
She and her friend, Andrea Barnett of Visalia, started their shopping at midnight at the Tulare outlets.
Soares says they would probably cut back on their normal Christmas spending, although they planned to shop until midafternoon.
"Who knows where the road might take us?" Soares says.
She says she returned to Toys 'R' Us after stopping there about 8 a.m. when "it was crazy."
"It was like waiting in line for rides at Disneyland," she says.
Cook says she likely won't cut back too much on Christmas shopping. "I'm trying to do my share to simulate the economy."
Since 9 a.m. the Clovis couple have been to Kmart, Wal-Mart and Toys 'R' Us.
"And we still have to go to Sports Authority and a video game store," says Linda Stevens, who has eight grandchildren. "We are finding everything we are looking for, so it's really working out."
The Stevenses don't plan to take a lunch break.
"After yesterday [Thanksgiving], I don't think I need a whole lot more," John Stevens says with a smile.
Stevens, owner of The House of Glass, says this Black Friday is one of the worst in recent memory. She's been at the mall for a dozen years.
"It has to be the economy," she says. "There is no shortage of people looking. They just aren't buying."
"We sold more items from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. than we have in an entire day," says Cornelius Sullivan, a co-owner. "People like the shop because they are looking for something different."
"We are still slammed with customers," says Justin Cruz, a manager at Best Buy. "There are lots of people in the store, and we are very, very busy."
Shoppers looking for deep discounts on laptop computers and LCD televisions began lining up at the retailer 18 hours before the doors opened at 5 a.m.
He started work at 3:30 a.m. Friday.
"I think I need to rest a little to keep going," Bagunu says.