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The below-freezing temperatures were no match for the thousands of shoppers who hit stores throughout the region this morning, long before the sun came up.

Retailers are reporting strong sales and shoppers are taking advantage of the early bargains offered to stay on budget. Or close to it.

Not all retailers waited until today, though, starting Black Friday on Thanksgiving Day.

An increasing number of chains opened yesterday in an effort to ring up more sales and gain market share during a time of lackluster consumer spending.

Shoppers reported today getting a place in line early to make sure they got deeply-discounted doorbusters and other items on their holiday shopping lists.

Waiting the longest for Black Friday shopping appears to be Isaac Bowser. He began camping outside the Best Buy in Fairview Heights Monday night. Yes, Monday night.

Bowser, 22, was third in line last year. He wanted to make sure he was number one this year. And he was. A tent with generator had served as his temporary home. His roommate, Jake Meiergerd, 20, joined him on Tuesday.

Inside Best Buy, Bowser picked up an Xbox 360, a 42-inch plasma TV and an assortment of laptops.

At the Best Buy in Brentwood, about 100 people were outside when it opened at 5 a.m. today. They were there to buy laptops, nook readers, TVs and cameras. The crowd was civil as they entered the doors to bright lights and holiday music.

Alicen Hunt was among the early morning shoppers at Best Buy in Brentwood this morning.

"I've not slept," said Hunt of Maryland Heights. She began at midnight at Walmart to shop for her four children, then headed to St. Louis Mills, back to a Walmart and was in line at Best Buy by 4:30 a.m. She opted for the Brentwood Best Buy after driving by the store on St. Charles Rock Road and seeing several hundred people in line there, she said.

Shopping in the wee hours is great fun, she said.

"I love it. I think it totally puts you in the Christmas spirit," Hunt said.

Hunt said she and her husband spent two hours at her mother's house, going over the ads in the newspaper and plotting a course. Her mother thinks the early shopping is ridiculous, Hunt said.

"My mother said there's nothing she needs bad enough to go shopping at midnight," Hunt said.

Angie Gianino of Richmond Heights was also among those shopping at the Brentwood Best Buy. She said there is no need to camp out, as some shoppers were doing.

"You can come right when the store opens, walk right in and get what you need," said Gianino, who purchased a Wii.

Next door, at the Sports Authority, there appeared to be more workers than shoppers around 6 a.m.

"There were a lot of shoppers at the beginning," said Adrian Van Besoyen, a footwear associate. "They get the main course at Best Buy then come here to sweeten the night."

It dies down between 6 and 9 a.m. becasue the hardcore shoppers "have already busted down the door, so to speak," Van Besoyen said.

By 7 a.m., parking lots were crowded at South County Mall, where stores had  started opening three hours earlier.

Several retailers said business was brisker than last year. And, yes, there were long lines at every place that sold coffee.

Shoppers were hunting down deals ranging from 40 percent off everything at Express to determining your discount by rolling dice at Game Nite.

"Every year we say we're going to buy less, but we end up buying more," said Mike Johnson of Fenton, waiting with a few bags from Macy's while his wife and daughter checked out Bath and Body Works.

At Macy's in the St. Louis Galleria, Candice Williams stopped to take a seat for a few minutes on an ottoman in the housewares department while her mom Lisa Williams and her sister Kristina Williams shopped nearby. It was 5:50 am. The trio woke up at 2:30 a.m in what has become a family tradition.

"I did it when my mother was alive and keep it going on now," Lisa Williams said. They planned on following up shopping with breakfast at 9.

Kristen Rutledge, Macy's Galleria VP and store manager, woke up at 1 a.m. so she could be at the store by 2:30 a.m. Doors opened at 4 a.m.

All the store's employees will work today and they will get free lunch provided by the store. 

"If you're in retail, you have to be excited about today," Rutledge said. "If you're not, you're probably in the wrong job."

About 100 customers lined up outside the door at 4 a.m., prompted by the 20 percent extra off all shoes and boots, Rutledge said. It's her 16th year working at Macy's and she said foot traffic by 6 a.m. looked good compared with previous years

At West County Center, Amy Terris of Ellisville was sitting on the floor just outside Bath and Body Works. She was surrounded by shopping bags.

"I'm going on 12 hours shopping, Terris said. "I started at the Toys R Us in Chesterfield at 10 o'clock last night."

Along the way, she stopped at a Target at 3 a.m. to buy a TV for her husband."

I ran back to electronics, got him the 37-inch screen he's been dreaming about," she said.

Terris said she saves money for three months for her Black Friday shopping.

"I shop until I'm out of money. Then we eat lunch. Then we go home and collapse."

The shoppers at West County Center seemed to be bypassing a gift wrapping booth, set up as a fundraiser for charity"

"We're actually really slow," said Cindy McFarland. "The morning shoppers are too organized. They're out to get the things they want and then to get out. The week before Christmas is when we're slammed.

At Toys R Us in Sunset Hills, the rush was long over by 5 a.m. The place, after all, had been open since 10 last night.

At one point in the wee hours, a manager said the line to checkout had been an hour long. Friday morning, workers were wheeling out pallets of moon shoes and radio-controlled cars for a new round of morning specials and the aisles were full of people eager to scoop them up.

The overnight approach to Black Friday was working well for Candis Mathis of Dittmer. She had been on the road since 11 last night. By 5 a.m. today, she was on her fourth store of the night, with the West County Center still to go.

"We might get home eventually," Mathis said.

Toys R Us started its first doorbuster deals at 10 p.m. Thursday night. A line began forming at 4:30 p.m. People huddled in blankets and jumped up and down to stay warm in the below-freezing temperatures Thursday night.

Some of them took bathroom breaks at nearby businesses, which occasionally led to arguments with Toys R Us staff who were under strict orders not to let people cut in line. A grandmother who wanted to join her grandchildren yelled at a staffer until he relented and let her join them. She was carrying the credit card, after all.

By 9:30 p.m., the parking lot was full and the line was several hundred people long and wrapped around the entire building. The hot items included a Netbook for $79.99 that was snatched up right away. Also popular was the Justin Bieber doll.

When Kim Whitehead of Sikeston saw how far the line stretched, she decided to walk back to her car and hit up another doorbuster sale instead.

"This is insane," she said.

But most people weren't deterred by the line.

Erin Ford of Affton came with her sisters in the hopes of grabbing a Bumblebee Transformers Helmet, regularly priced at $40, but on sale for $10, as well as other toys for their children.

"Between the four of us, we'll end up saving a couple hundred bucks," she said.

They planned to hit up the midnight doorbusters at Walmart afterward, followed by the 3 a.m. opening at Kohl's for an all-nighter of Black Friday shopping.

Down the street at the Walmart in Kirkwood, hundreds of people began picking up doorbusters, which had been covered in clear wrap, and putting them in their carts before the clock struck midnight when the sale officially started. Store employees tried to stop some of it, but ended up relenting closer to midnight.

Stephanie Peace of Richmond Heights stood in an aisle with her hands on three pairs of boys pajamas, waiting for midnight, when she could put them in her cart.

"I didn't want to come here at all," she said. "My sister dragged me here."

She had done most of her holiday shopping online earlier in the day, taking advantage of cyberspace Black Friday promotions including free shipping on some items.

"So it was the same as if I had bought it in the store, but I didn't have to use any gas," she said.

Kyle Schmidt, 19, a student at Forissant Valley Community College, said he and his mother Erica started their shopping at 3:45 a.m. They went to Walmart in St. Charles to get dishes.

Schmidt said they found what they wanted easily enough, but most of the shoppers at that hour were waiting for electronics to go on sale at 5 a.m.

 "It was packed up and down the aisles, Schmidt said.

After finishing their Walmart trip, Schmidt's mother went to Mid Rivers Mall in St. Peters while he claimed a spot at the front of the line outside Office Max in St. Charles.

Schmidt said he arrived at Office Max about 4:40 a.m. to wait for a chance to buy a $499 laptop. He said he had tried to buy it online, but the computer -- an Acer with an i5 processor-- sold out in minutes.

The laptop purchase meant spending more than usual this year, Schmidt said, but the deal was too good to miss.

"I don't mind waiting for something like this," he said, rocking back and forth on his feet to fight the chilly air just before sunrise.

Schmidt said Black Friday shopping trips are a tradition for him and his mother, and the deals are important.

"You have to save money when you can," he said.

The lines outside Kohl's and Target in O'Fallon, Mo. stretched the length of the Highway K shopping center they share.

Alex Wise, 15, and Jena Callaway,18, of Winfield, said they arrived at Kohl's around 1 a.m. to secure a spot near the front of the line. They were looking for deals on clothes, they said, and they planned to hit Gordman's later.

"I didn't know it was going to be this cold," Wise said, shivering. The temperature was about 26 degrees early in the morning. Water puddles in the parking lot had turned to ice.

The folks who were first in line at Target arrived at 3 p.m. Thanksgiving Day to wait in line for TV's, and 40-inch models were the first purchases that rolled out the door within five minutes of the 4 a.m. opening.

Anthony Porcaro, 47, of Burlington, Wisc., arrived at Target around 2 a.m., after dropping off his mother-in-law at her job at Kohl's.

"It wasn't early enough," he said, laughing.

He and sons Anthony, 21, and Mike, 18, planned to grab two 40-inch TV's, one for each boy to take to college.

Porcaro and other shoppers were using their cell phones to look for deals online and check inventories while they waited.

Further down the line, Loraine Raziq, 38, of O'Fallon, Mo., said she was waiting in line for a dual DVD player. She clutched an empty coffee cup in one hand and took cell phone requests from relatives who were seeking other items.

Raziq said she planned to spend about the same amount this year as she had last year. She said this year's Black Friday deals were pretty good.

Raziq said she planned to charge her purchases to earn points toward a vacation. She said she knows the economy has been tough, and the long lines could have been evidence of how important great deals were for shoppers.

"There are more people here than I've ever seen before," she said. "Maybe it's just people being more frugal."

Raziq said she planned to shop until 9 a.m., when she had a massage scheduled...

For a group of cousins from St. Charles and Lincoln counties, Black Friday is a 17-year tradition that involves planning, themed T-shirts and specific duties

Becky Kerley, Esther Kerley, Amanda Kerley, Amber Wilson, Sarah Frye and Danesha Brown sported red shirts that said "Griswold Family Christmas" across the front and featured a giant pine tree strapped to the hood of a station wagon -- a reference to the "Christmas Vacation" moving starring Chevy Chase. Each shirt was personalized with the family member's name on the back...

Becky Kerley said the group has different T-shirts each year. Last year, they were "Black Friday Ninjas".

Most of the group wrapped up a marathon of shopping a little after 9 a.m. at Mid rivers Mall in St. Peters. But three members -- Brenda Harke, Vanessa Coe and Lynn Kerley -- were off finding gifts at a different location.

The shopping extravaganza began around 11 a.m. Thanksgiving Day with a planning session at Harke's house. Harke had reserved two copies of the Post-Dispatch at a local gas station so the group could spread out the ads and plan their day.

No smart phone apps or Internet sales for this family, Brown said. "Strictly old school."

And the men? Becky Kerley said "they all know to go away." They can circle and initial items they want though, she said.

She said the day was less about finding the goods than having a great time with each other.

"It's all in good fun."

Across the region, the picture was the same: Long lines of customers and crossed fingers from store managers that this was going to be a strong shopping season.

Not all stores, however, were seeing the bump of early openings.

No customers were lined up at  the Dollar General store on Delmar Boulevard at Kingshighway in St. Louis city when it opened an hour early Friday, at 7 a.m.

"And that was fine with me, but don't tell corporate," said a store employee, who asked not to be identified.

The shoppers did come eventually, including Latasha Evans of St. Louis, who bought gift wrap and a Christmas tree.

She had started her holiday shopping at 11 last night at the Brentwood Walmart, standing in line for the midnight opening.

After purchasing the gift pajamas she had an eye on ("only $4!"), and presents for other family members,  Evans was home and in bed by 2 this morning.

By 8:30 a.m., she was back on the shopping trail, stopping at Dollar General.

Wasn't  she tired from all the shopping? Evans rolled her eyes at the question.

"Heavens no," she laughed.

Many stores rolled out pre-Black Friday sales, some of which began several weeks ago. Black Friday — which technically is today — is the traditional start of the holiday shopping season and one of the biggest shopping days of the year. In addition to the stores open on Thanksgiving, many retailers launched their Black Friday deals online on Thursday.

Among the stores open Thursday were Sears, Bass Pro Shops and Old Navy.

Kmart has had Thanksgiving hours for about two decades, and many Walmart stores that are open 24 hours stay open on the holiday, too. Toys R Us inched up its opening time to 10 p.m. Thursday for the start of its Black Friday sales. And several stores opened at midnight with doorbuster deals.

Bargains, cabin fever and an aversion to Black Friday crowds drew shoppers out on Thanksgiving Day who snapped up everything from pajama pants at Old Navy to LCD TVs and tool kits at Sears.

"I figured I'd get out now while the turkey is cooking," said Antionette Williams of St. Louis, who stopped in at the Sears at Crestwood Court on Thursday morning to buy DVD players. "I want the early bargains. And this way, you don't have to deal with the rush. It's going to be so hectic tomorrow."

She planned to spend today relaxing at home and watching television. She added gleefully that she ended up getting some Black Friday prices a day early because employees began changing the sale signs before the store closed, so cashiers rang up the lower prices.

This was the first year that Sears opened its doors — from 7 a.m. to noon — on Thanksgiving. It had some special sales on Thursday, but employees said the sweetest deals would be today.

About 20 shoppers were waiting in their cars when the doors opened at the Sears in Crestwood Court. Customers trickled in the rest of the morning, but with a beefed-up staff on hand, the sales clerks at times outnumbered the shoppers.

"It's nothing fabulous," Kevin Tarleton, an assistant store manager, said of the traffic in the store.

But since it was the first time Sears had Thanksgiving hours, he suspects many people didn't realize the store was open. "There's a learning curve."

The store is expecting a much larger crowd when its doors opened at 4 a.m. today for its Black Friday deals. Usually, about 100 people are waiting.

Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation, said that shopping on Thanksgiving Day seemed to attract a certain demographic — mainly those between 18 and 34.

"Young adults are attracted to shopping when there's not as many people in the stores and they know they are still going to get a great deal," she said.

For the second year, the non-mall-based Old Navy stores around the St. Louis region were open on Thanksgiving.

The company wasn't sure how popular Thanksgiving Day shopping would be when it opened at noon last year. But Betsy King, a district manager, said customers were "knocking down the doors." So Old Navy moved up the opening time to 9 a.m. this year and stayed open until 8 p.m.

About 100 people were waiting outside the Old Navy stores in Fairview Heights and South County on Thursday morning, she said. The stores were buzzing all morning and then began to thin out around noon as shoppers headed to family gatherings.

Shoppers with an Old Navy, Gap or Banana credit card could get Black Friday prices on Thursday. And as a bonus, they could get $10 off if they spent more than $50.

Hurnietha Shahid of St. Louis snatched up 25 pairs of pajama bottoms at the Old Navy on Ladue Road. They were on sale for $5 apiece, compared with a regular price of about $15. Her parents are on a fixed income and often end up spending way too much money on Christmas presents for their grandchildren, she explained. So she decided to help them buy cheap gifts this year.

But not everybody was so giddy to be shopping on Thanksgiving.

"It was a moral dilemma," said Todd Goodwin of Minneapolis as he stood in line at Old Navy with three pairs of jeans and a sweater in his arms. "I'm kind of opposed to shopping on Thanksgiving. I feel bad for the people working because I used to work retail."

But since he and his wife are on a strict budget, they couldn't pass up the sale.

"I'm in need of jeans," he said apologetically. "They had a really good deal on jeans."

Old Navy employees volunteered to work and were receiving overtime, King said. She added that the company was providing Thanksgiving fixings for employees and was holding drawings and raffles for them.

Laurie Clark of Affton, who shopped at Sears on Thursday, also wasn't sure if it was worth it to make employees work on Thanksgiving, even though she was taking advantage of the opportunity to shop. As she looked around the sparsely populated store, she wondered if there would be enough sales to justify being open.

"I knew it was going to be (pretty empty) when I got a good parking spot," she said.

Will Beedie, a Sears employee, was not exactly thrilled to be working. But his parents moved back their holiday meal to 2 p.m. from noon so he could make it when he got off work. And he was getting paid overtime.

After the store closed at noon, a handful of employees planned to stick around to finish setting up the doorbuster deals for Black Friday.

Some of the specially priced electronics were already stacked up and wrapped in white paper and big red bows in the aisles, tantalizing customers for a return trip today.

With consumers in a bit more of a spending mood after the last two years, analysts are expecting a bigger turnout this year on Black Friday. Up to 138 million people were expected to shop on this three-day weekend compared to 134 million last year, according to a survey conducted by the National Retail Federation.

Most holiday forecasts predict anywhere from flat to a 3 percent bump in sales for the overall shopping season.


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Lisa Brown, Tim Logan, Jim Doyle, Shane Anthony, Georgina Gustin, Steve Giegerich and Laurie Skrivan contributed to this report.