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TWICE On The Scene: A Black Friday Journal

In pursuit of a first-hand account of Black Friday (and, let’s be honest, the chance to snag a great bargain or two), TWICE hit the bricks the morning after Thanksgiving along with tens of millions of Americans. Here’s our report on what’s become an annual holiday ritual:

2:00 a.m.: Store personnel arrive at a suburban Best Buy in Central New Jersey. A queue has already formed outside the entrance, the first on line having arrived the afternoon before.

3:00 a.m.: The line is now about 200 strong. Sleeping bags, lean-to’s, folding chairs and empty coffee cups are strewn about. Unlike past years when mostly teens and college kids braved the cold, baby boomers are well represented this morning.

Among the latter is a middle-aged mom who was driving home from a distant Thanksgiving dinner and decided to pull into the parking lot. Her goal: a $250 Toshiba satellite notebook, one of several “unadvertised specials” that she wants for her daughter, who’s asleep in the car. “This is the first time I’m doing this,” she says. “I’m hoping to get a good deal on something I wouldn’t buy otherwise.”

Standing next to her is another first-timer, a forty-something dad who also wants the Toshiba for his daughter. “I couldn’t justify spending $700 on a 12-year-old, and I can’t give her just a laptop and nothing else,” he said. Would he do this again next year? “We’ll see.”

Their queue-mates include a teen and her dad, on line for a 15-inch Advent LCD TV ($130) for grandma and a $15 Motorola Bluetooth headset for herself, and a student who wants to buy an unspecified iPod for his girlfriend.

4:00 a.m.: “Blue shirts” begin handing out tickets for limited supply door-busters and to advise shoppers on product locations and availability. The Toshiba dad takes a ticket for a 42W-inch Westinghouse LCD TV, sale priced at $1,000. The line now stretches past the building to the strip mall’s main entrance, about 100 yards away. Police from multiple jurisdictions arrive to monitor the situation, although the crowd is orderly.

5:00 a.m.: The doors open, the crowd trundles in, and controlled chaos ensues. Numerous queues for various products snake around end-caps and up and down aisles.

7:30 a.m.: The first wave of shoppers dissipates, giving store services manager Frank Baeli a chance to chat with a reporter. This is his fifth Black Friday with Best Buy, he says, which helps explain his coolness under pressure. Indeed, spirits run high for him and his team, which has rehearsed this day in dry runs. Aside from the larger crowds, was anything unexpected? “Nope,” he smiles.

1:30 p.m.: Best Buy’s “7-hour special” sale ended 90 minutes ago but every spot in the parking lot of the Astoria, N.Y. store is filled. Observers have “never seen it this crowded,” owing perhaps to the fine weather and even better prices, and sales volume is already nearing the million-dollar mark, a supervisor says.

Asked about availability on the 42W-inch Panasonic HD plasma, which earlier in the day sold for an unprecedented $1,000, the supervisor says “That’s impossible. That’s obliterated. None left.”

2:30 p.m.: Most of the action at a nearby P.C. Richard & Son is centered at the back of the store where the HDTVs are displayed, including a 46W-inch Sony Bravia LCD TV, advertised for $2,000; a 50W-inch Sony Grand Wega LCD rear projection TV, advertised for $1,300; and a 50W-inch Toshiba DLP advertised for $1,250.

Traffic is brisk, but Bruce, a 15-year salesman with the chain, says the store is expecting another large wave after 5:00 pm as workers return from their jobs. He recalls how the queue was already “outside the parking lot and down the street” by the time he arrived at 7:00 that morning. “I never saw anything like it,” he says.

How Low Did They Go?