Bar patrons, creeping home at closing time, crossed paths early today with shoppers swapping sleep for bargains.
Under a star-lit sky, the first shoppers at Rimrock Mall dribbled in as the mall's main doors opened at 3 a.m. on the day after Thanksgiving, a day known among retailers as Black Friday.
By 3 a.m., Pat Moon, of Billings, was a man on a mission, sent by his wife to snag 1000-thread count sheets for $79.97 and pots and pans for their kitchen.
Herberger's, along with J.C. Penney, were the first of the mall stores to open at 4 a.m., but Moon still had an hour to wait.
"She had to tell me exactly what she wanted," Moon said. His wife, who had to work, sent him with separate envelopes for five different stores. Each envelope contained clipped store coupons, with pictures and descriptions of each item.
"It's pretty much idiot proof," said Moon, a contractor, who was shopping the doorbuster sales for the first time.
After stopping at Herberger's, he planned to be at Sears and Wal-mart at 5 a.m., then move on to Target and Home Depot at 6. His envelopes contained about $500 to $600 worth of purchases, includ-ing a washer from Sears.
"I'm hoping to be home by 6:30 or 7 o'clock," he said.
Retailers typically rack up roughly 10 percent of their holiday sales during the three-day weekend that begins with Black Friday, a day named for the point at which stores traditionally turn a profit for the year.
Despite fears that the looming recession could cast a pale over the holiday shopping season, deep discounts drew shoppers to West End stores. Moon and his wife started even earlier, spending part of Thanksgiving Day at Shopko and K-Mart, which were open on the holiday.
"They're just running good sales and there's a lot of money to be saved," he said. "If I get everything on the list by getting up early, I'll probably save $200 to $300 this morning. You spend enough, you save enough I guess."
Despite the weak economy, Moon expected his Christmas spending to equal previous years.
Kevin Carter, who stood outside the metal security gates of Herberger's, smiled broadly as a store clerk handed him a coveted slip of paper. The coupon allowed him to buy a bundled Nintendo Wii gaming console for $399.97.
Within five minutes of the store's opening, Carter was standing at one of four mobbed cash reg-isters, paying for the Wii console. Unlike most shoppers, Carter was buying birthday presents, rather than Christmas gifts. His son, Immanuel, turns 8 in early December. While he shopped at Herberger's, his 18-year-old daughter, Kourtney, staked out J.C. Penney, using a gift card to buy clothes for her younger brother.
Kourtney expected to move on from the mall - where most of the stores planned 8 a.m. open-ings - to Shopko, Target and Best Buy.
"Hopefully, I want to be done by 8 a.m. or 9," she said. Then she checked the time on her cell phone. "Usually I'm at work until 3 a.m," she said. The teen, a student at Montana State University Bill-ings, works at Bones Brewery.
While some shoppers sent text messages, others used their cell phones as command centers, calling friends and relatives to check on lines at other stores.
Britton Frisbie, at Herberger's, called her mother, Georgiann Deckard, at J.C. Penney as they waited in line. When Penney's opened 10 minutes before 4 a.m., a rippled murmur ran through the 60 shoppers crowding one entrance to Herberger's.
"Cheaters. They're cheaters," some muttered, then laughed. "My girlfriend started standing in line at Best Buy at midnight," Frisbie said.
The friend, who was trolling for a computer and a surround-sound system, had agreed to pick up a few Wii games at Best Buy for Frisbie's nieces and nephews. In return, Frisbie planned to get a half-priced DVD player for her girlfriend at Wal-Mart.
Frisbie expected to hit 10 to 15 stores today. By the end of the day, she hoped to have all of her Christmas shopping done. She expected to spend less than $500, half of what she has budgeted in previ-ous years.
"We decided to do more needs than wants this year," she said.
The uncertain economy has her whole extended family a little rattled.
"It's just not knowing," she said. "My brother-in-law was laid off the day before Thanksgiving."
She and her mother have shopped Black Friday sales together for a decade.
Cars streamed through the roundabout at Shiloh Crossing, pouring into Kohl's parking lot. At 4:30 a.m. two lines snaked from cash registers at opposite ends of the building. More than 180 customers stood in one checkout line, leading to eight cash registers on the building's west side.
Store manager Dannie Schwartz estimated it was taking 45 minutes to an hour for customers to move through the checkout lines. She expected the morning early bird specials to drive more intense traffic through Kohl's than during the store's grand opening.
Despite the nation's economic woes, the Billings store had a great grand opening, she said. Schwartz expected Black Friday's crowd to thin briefly around 2 p.m. and then pick up later in the afternoon. The early morning customers were far more focused on specific sale items than the gawkers who came to look over the inventory during the store's grand opening.
"They definitely have an agenda of what they're looking for," she said.
Kitchen electronics for $10 and $15 were moving rapidly, along with down comforters, fine jew-elry and GPS units.
Every one of the new store's 110 part and full-time sales clerks was scheduled to work Friday.
"Ninety-five percent of my team has never been through a Black Friday before," Schwartz said. She was confident of their coping skills, since they all survived the grand opening.