Huge Midlands crowds chase deals

Kaderick and April Towner went on a nine-hour shopping spree for doorbuster deals that started at midnight and ended shortly after the sun was up Friday.

When it was over, the Irmo couple had witnessed some pushing and shoving in the huge crowds, completed the Christmas shopping for their children and had spent - and saved - $700.

"Most everything we bought was at least 50 percent off," Kaderick Towner said.

This year, many retailers opened earlier than ever for Black Friday and even stayed open on Thanksgiving Day, offering deep discounts to lure cautious shoppers and hoping to wring money out of early shoppers like the Towners.

A lot is at stake for retailers as the nation attempts to recover from a two-year recession. Sales were expected to be down 3.2 percent nationally this year.

Still, Midlands shoppers were out in force early Friday.

Nearly 1,000 people showed up at the Harbison-area Toys R Us, which for the first time opened at midnight instead of the traditional 5 a.m.

Some shoved their way to the front of the line as workers prepared to open the doors, while those who had been waiting yelled and cursed at them. And several police officers arrived to make sure the situation did not get out of control.

The Towners - five-year Black Friday veterans - were first in line, arriving at 6 p.m. Thanksgiving Day to get a shot at their biggest score of the morning, saving $200 apiece on two walking toy horses for their 2-year-old and 3-year-old daughters.

"I like the sales. He likes the excitement," April Towner said.

The Towners said the line at Toys R Us grew slowly for the first four hours with only about 50 or 60 shoppers showing up. But at 10 p.m., massive crowds began to arrive.

Around 11:40 p.m., shoppers started pushing toward the store's entrance and a mob of people surrounded the front of the line, including some who had just shown up. Those who had waited for hours yelled for people to go to the back of the line.

Store manager Bill Moorehead opened the door and stepped outside: "Well, good morning everybody," he said. "Don't trample each other. Be polite. It's only a toy."

Moorehead let in a trickle of people, handing them tickets for certain limited-quantity items.

Kaderick Towner estimated that among the first 50 people let in the door, 10 had not been waiting all night.

Several people yelled that the store should have given the tickets out to the people in line before they opened the doors.

"I have never seen anything like this in my life," said shopper Gwen Harrell, as she watched the crowd from a distance. "I have gone to several of the Black Fridays before, but this is just ridiculous. It's not worth it."

After the first 15 minutes, the crowd settled down and the biggest concern seemed to be getting in out of the cold as the temperature dropped into the 30s.

"I have never had this many show up," Moorehead said, as he monitored a seemingly endless line snaking through the parking lot and used a walkie-talkie to communicate with store employees dealing with the horde already inside.

Shortly before midnight, 8-year-old Levi Bishop pressed his nose up against the front window, peering at the crowds inside. He asked his parents to take him and his brother, Luke, 9, to the store just to see what all the fuss was about. They had seen ads on TV and had heard their grandmother and aunt talk about deals they got in previous years, including a $3 crock pot.

Levi's mother, Beth Bishop, said she finished her Christmas shopping a month ago, but wanted to let her sons see the crowds.

Levi said he was "very surprised" at what he saw on his first Black Friday. The West Columbia family left in less than an hour without going inside.

Within 52 minutes of Toys R Us opening its doors - after some stops and starts for crowd control - everyone had been let inside. Some already had left with big boxes and bags; others went away empty-handed.

Shay King and her fiance, Meechis Pauling, got in line at about 11 p.m. and left the store about 1 a.m. with two scooters and a bag full of goodies, including a digital camera and MP3 player.

"Everything I got was on sale," King said.

As for the Towners, they were going to spend the rest of the day taking turns napping.