Albert Soriano leaned back under the slightly overcast sky in front of Best Buy on Thursday night, waiting for the gates of his shopping Shangri-La to slide open.
Sitting leisurely in a dual camping chair with his 10-year-old son Seth, the 42-year-old Atwater carpenter had been camped outside the store since 11 a.m. Tuesday, with his thoughts focused upon taking advantage of the midnight deals the Merced store offered.
Foremost in his mind: purchasing two $199 42-inch flat screen Sharp televisions and two $179 laptop computers, deals that would mean a few hundred bucks remaining this year for Christmas shopping.
Although Soriano's methods might seem extreme to most, he said providing for his family and loved ones is well worth the wait. "My kid has been working really, really hard in school, and I feel that he deserves a laptop," Soriano said.
The scene in front of Best Buy was a familiar one in Merced County and stores throughout the nation Thanksgiving night, as many retailers opened their doors early for eager customers hoping to snag Black Friday deals.
In Merced, Target, Best Buy and Kohl's were among the retailers who opened their doors at midnight on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, the year's busiest shopping day. Dozens of Mercedians lined up outside all three stores Thursday, waiting for the midnight shopping bonanza.
At the Merced Mall, many stores opened their doors about 4 a.m. to accommodate the throng of shoppers.
Most retailers said it's too early to determine how sales compare with last year, and whether the economic recession will mean fewer shoppers, but the numbers look encouraging.
Sanjeet Dhanota, manager of Merced's Target store, said opening at midnight allowed the store to gain an edge over the competition. Employees handed out free Luna bars to the long line of customers gathered outside before midnight. "Some of them had been here for a while, so we wanted to make sure they had energy to shop," Dhanota said.
Last year, Target opened at 4 a.m. on Black Friday. Merced resident Ernie Teal, 17, began waiting in front of the store's south entrance at 11 a.m. Thursday. Till's motivation was a 46-inch flat-screen Westinghouse television, on sale at $298. "I feel terrific," the Golden Valley High student said, after purchasing his television. "It was worth it. I was the first one in and the first one out."
Like Teal, Soriano had no regrets about camping out. The staff at Best Buy gave tickets to Soriano and the first customers waiting outside the store, ensuring die-hard consumers had first dibs on the most popular merchandise.
Soriano seized the two televisions and laptops he was hoping for, along with television wall mounts, an external computer hard drive, Xbox 360 Live bundle kit, two video games and five Blu-ray movies.
Soriano spent about $1,800, but he estimated saving about $1,000. "Right now, we're trying to save every penny we can. Sometimes we need to sacrifice in order to get that extra deal," Soriano said.
It was the first time Soriano had ever camped outside the store, packing a six-man tent, ice chest with food, three sleeping bags, two sets of dual camping chairs, thermals, gloves and beanie caps to prepare for the experience.
Despite light rainfall Thursday afternoon, Soriano said the weather was otherwise relatively pleasant.
He also found the undertaking enriching. For example, as more shoppers began lining up outside the store on Wednesday, some of Soriano's fellow campers brought out grills, sharing hot dogs and steaks with their neighbors.
Others passed around snacks and sandwiches at night while huddling around a television set. Soriano departed from the line early Thursday morning, going home to cook turkey while wife Nancy DeLeon saved his place. He returned and shared his turkey with the others.
"It was really touching. You could see people helping each other out," he said.
Jenni Jacklitsch-Mollon, manager of Merced's Best Buy, said the store's midnight opening turned out very well, with the store's door-buster items vanishing within minutes. Last year, the store opened at 5 a.m.
"It was really exciting. It's something I hope we'll do in the future," she said. "I am definitely optimistic about the holiday season. This will begin a month of a lot of great sales and, hopefully, a lot of gift buying, because there's cool stuff out right now."
Owners of smaller businesses in Merced, particularly those downtown, say they're hopeful the holiday season will bring out more people interested in shopping locally. At Helen Louise & HIM, a steady stream of shoppers poured into the clothing store Friday morning. Others checked out the sidewalk deals the business had to offer. Store owner Jackie Goodwin called her Black Friday sales "fabulous" and "as good, if not better" than last year.
Goodwin said she's excited construction on downtown's 18th Street, where the business is located, was completed in time for the holidays. Many 18th Street businesses said they suffered earlier this year because the project, which included the repaving of 18th and Canal streets, rerouted vehicle traffic.
"(The project) was inconvenient and it was dirty, so that was frustrating," Goodwin said. "But other than that, the end result is fabulous. Obviously they had to do the work to get there."
Merced police said no major incidents of crime were reported Friday morning or afternoon. The department has once again deployed bike officers at the city's major shopping centers, hoping to prevent crime.
Although Soriano said he has some Christmas shopping left to do, he's already contemplating 2012's shopping blitz. Next year, however, Soriano said he might camp out at Best Buy a day earlier -- the Monday before Thanksgiving.
"I learned from this experience to always come prepared," he said.
Managing Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.