Story By DONNA HEALY
Of The Gazette Staff
Bar patrons, creeping home at closing time, crossed paths early Friday with shoppers swapping sleep for bargains.
Under a starlit 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 1,000-thread count sheet sets 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. Moon staked out a first-place spot in line. His wife, who had to work, sent him with separate envelopes for five stores. Each envelope contained clipped ads, with pictures and descriptions of each item on her list.
"She had to tell me exactly what she wanted. It's pretty much idiot-proof," said Moon, a contractor, who was shopping the door-buster sales for the first time.
After his stop at Herberger's, he planned to move on to Sears and Wal-Mart at 5 a.m., then head for Target and Home Depot at 6. His list totaled $500 to $600 worth of purchases, including a washer from Sears.
"I'm hoping to be home by 6:30 or 7 o'clock," he said.
Despite the troubled economy, Moon expected his Christmas spending to equal that of previous years. He and his wife started shopping on Thanksgiving Day, hitting Shopko and K-Mart, two stores 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."
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.
A bone-chilling wind assaulted bargain hunters at Best Buy. But Black Friday veterans Coti Widdicombe and her sister, Kerry Pantoja, came prepared.
Around 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day - a full 12 hours before Best Buy's 5 a.m. opening - they erected a pop-up awning tent, draped on the sides with vinyl tarps. Inside were blankets, chairs and propane space heaters, which warmed the tent to a balmy 50 degrees.
Last year, they were first in line at Target.
"If you know what you want, it only makes sense to come here early enough to know you'll get it," Widdicombe said.
Pantoja wanted one of the eMachines, a desktop computer. Her sister also wanted a family computer. After setting up the makeshift tent, they crossed King Avenue a couple of times, picking up snacks and making a bathroom run to Wal-Mart, where they also scoped out store bargains.
Before 4:30 a.m., they clutched Best Buy store maps pinpointing key locations and had secured coupons valid until noon for their coveted purchases.
Widdicombe intended to spend about half of the thousand dollars she spent last year, cutting spending by eliminating the impulse purchases she made for herself last year. Her two teens, ages 15 and 17, also had fewer "must-have" items on their wish lists.
A teen, positioned ahead of the two sisters in line, tried to sell a stack of coupons to late arrivals, but was ordered to leave the premises by store employees.
Clutching a cup of coffee in one hand, Bill DuBeau hunkered down in the stiff wind outside Best Buy. A dog blanket, usually used to protect his car's seats, hung over his shoulders. DuBeau vowed never to repeat his first Black Friday shopping experience.
What drove him to it?
A coupon to save $300 on a high-end Sony computer with a built-in Blu-ray Disc player lured him to the store at 2:45 a.m. to queue up for the 5 a.m. opening.
"I'm thinking 300 bucks isn't worth it," said DuBeau, an architect.
A couple hundred shoppers stood in line a little after 4 a.m. At least 200 left after getting their coupons, DuBeau said. He stayed to check out wireless routers and a surround-sound system. Around him in the line, a sense of camaraderie prevailed.
"We're like a community of idiots," he said.
At 4 a.m., cars streamed steadily through the roundabout at Shiloh Crossing, pouring into Kohl's parking lot. At 4:30 a.m., two lines snaked through the store to cash registers at opposite ends of the building. More than 180 customers stood in one checkout line, which led to eight cash registers on the building's west side.
Store manager Dannie Schwartz estimated a 45-minute to hourlong wait for customers moving through the checkout lines. She expected the morning early-bird specials to trigger even more traffic flow through the store than during the height of the store's grand opening at the beginning of October.
Despite the nation's economic woes, the Billings store had a strong grand opening, she said. The Black Friday customers were far more focused on specific sale items than the curious shoppers who checked out the store's grand opening.
"They definitely have an agenda of what they're looking for," she said.
All of the new store's 110 part-time and full-time sales clerks were at the store Friday.
"Ninety-five percent of my team has never been through a Black Friday before," Schwartz said. But she was confident of their coping skills, since all of them survived the grand opening.
Around 4:30 a.m., Leah Pointer stood patiently at Kohl's beside a large, red suitcase.
"I have some ripped-up luggage and a lot of travel to do," said Pointer, who works for the Bureau of Reclamation.
She was about 170 customers back from the cash register, but seemed unfazed by the line. She has shopped the day after Thanksgiving sales for the last 15 years, some years with friends, some years alone.
"It's pretty mellow," she said. "Nobody is elbowing anybody."
Donna Peters walked out of Kohl's around 4:30 a.m. toting a large bag of sheets, comforters and stuff for her children.
"Sales are better than last year," Peters said.
For her, the sales are a yearly ritual. But she was a bit less prepared for them than usual. The family stayed up playing cards too late Thursday night for her to make a shopping list.
Kevin Carter, who stood outside the metal security gates of Herberger's at 3 a.m., 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, complete with remote, Nunchuk controller and three games, for $399.97.
Within five minutes of the store's opening, Carter stood at one of four mobbed cash registers, 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, a student at Montana State University Billings, works at Bones Brewery. After shopping at Penney's, she expected to head away from the mall - where most of the stores were opening at 8 a.m. - to discount and electronics stores.
"Hopefully, I want to be done by 8 a.m. or 9," she said. "Usually I'm at work until 3 a.m."
Some shoppers used their cell phones as command centers, calling friends and relatives to check on lines at other stores or send text messages.
Britton Frisbie, at Herberger's, called her mother, Georgiann Deckard, at J.C. Penney, before the two stores opened.
"Now I'm getting in the zone," Frisbie said a few minutes before the store opening.
When Penney's opened several minutes before 4 a.m., a rippling murmur ran through the 60 shoppers crowding one entrance to Herberger's.
"Cheaters. They're cheaters," some muttered, but their tone seemed more amused than irate.
Frisbie and her mother have shopped Black Friday sales together for a decade. She seemed relieved to be waiting indoors.
"My girlfriend started standing in line at Best Buy at midnight," Frisbie said.
Frisbie expected to hit 10 to 15 stores Friday. By the end of the day, she hoped to have all of her Christmas shopping done. She budgeted less than $500, half of what she has spent in previous years.
"We decided to do more needs than wants this year," she said.
The uncertain economy has her extended family a little rattled.
"It's just not knowing," she said. "My brother-in-law was laid off the day before Thanksgiving."
Gwen Gourneau, of Wolf Point, and her sister, Roxanne, planned their shopping trip to Billings almost a month in advance.
"On the Fort Peck Reservation, most of our communities don't have a store where you can buy socks," Roxanne Gourneau said.
The last few years, bad weather kept them shopping closer to home, in Williston, N.D., or through catalogs, Gwen Gourneau said.
They came to Billings on Thursday afternoon to visit relatives, shop and take a little vacation. Gasoline, selling for $1.79 a gallon, was one bargain they never expected when they planned the trip.
"Almost my whole Christmas list has been satisfied," Roxanne said during an afternoon break at Rimrock Mall. Her next stop, Kohl's, where she had price-checked for bargains online.
While the corridors of Rimrock Mall bustled Friday afternoon, some shoppers said the mall seemed less jampacked than previous years. Business seemed hit or miss inside stores.
Despite eye-catching window signs touting "buy one, get one free, today only" holiday sweaters, two clerks kept pace at the cash registers at The Gap around 12:30 p.m. At Lids, a clerk stood idle while a few customers browsed. A similar spot check at Abercrombie and Fitch showed no lines at the cash registers.
At Scheels, business was brisk, with lines half a dozen customers deep at the registers, when Scott and Anna Huck of Billings emerged from the store carrying a large shopping bag. The Hucks traditionally shop the day away on Black Friday.
This year, the couple, and Anna's sister, Deb Kiel, started at Shopko at 6 a.m. Long lines at the registers persuaded them to abandon their merchandise.
"We weren't going to stay in line for two hours to check out," Anna Huck said.
From Shopko, they headed to Wal-Mart and then on to the mall.
"This year we're a lot more price conscious," Anna said. The couple hasn't set a budget for Christmas gifts, she said, but this year, they're paying with cash.