MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Holiday shoppers can be forgiven if they feel like they need a nap about now. Stores across the country opened earlier than ever this morning for the post-Thanksgiving sales.

But as NPR's Robert Smith reports, such promotional gimmicks have their limits.

ROBERT SMITH: So much for beating the crowds. At 4:30 this morning outside a Best Buy store in Brooklyn, it already looked like a riot had swept through the parking lot.

(Soundbite of siren)

SMITH: Yellow police tape was strung everywhere. Discarded trash and umbrellas and lawn chairs littered the sidewalk. And hundreds of people, still lined up around the block, looked miserable.

Mr. MOE HITTERY(ph): Cold, hungry, waiting to go the bathroom…

Mr. JACK SOPHEY(ph): And frostbite. A little frostbite in the toes.

Mr. HITTERY: Yeah on our toes.

SMITH: And Moe Hittery and Jack Sophey are the lucky ones. They're 20th in line from the door.

Unidentified Man #1: I got here at six. Right after I had Thanksgiving dinner with my family.

SMITH: Somebody else took the dishes and you come and wait in line?

Unidentified Man #1: Yes. I came to wait for a laptop, a desktop, digital video camera, and a mini-DVD player.

SMITH: That is if Best Buy doesn't run out first. For instance, they guarantee only 18 of those laptops at the $250 price. When the store opens at 5, the line surges forward and New York City police officers pull out the bullhorns.

Unidentified Man #2: Everybody stay on the crosswalk, move away from the line. Can you speak English? Everybody away from the line.

SMITH: Aw, that's the holiday spirit, at least as practiced on Black Friday. The term is supposed to refer to the way the day's sales can move a retailer's books into the black. But black might as well refer to the mood of the shoppers waiting in line or to the color of the early morning sky when the doors open.

And this year, some outlet malls experimented with opening at midnight. Others, like Kmart and CompUSA were doing business on Thanksgiving evening. Britt Beemer, who runs the retail consulting firm America's Research Group, says that opening early doesn't necessarily draw more people.

Mr. BRITT BEEMER (America's Research Group): I mean I don't think consumers get excited about going to a store unless there's a real reason. Now, if you've got $999 42-inch HDTV - like Wal-Mart does - if you'd opened up at 8:00 on Thursday morning you'd see the crowd then, too.

SMITH: Beemer's research team did notice an increased volume of shoppers this morning, but not for the reason you might think.

Mr. BEEMER: We had probably three times more men shopping with their wives for early bird specials this year compared to a year ago. And it's being driven much by the fears of all the violence by the PlayStation 3, which caused a lot of husbands to say they would not let their wives shop alone today.

SMITH: At the early morning opening of Toys "R" Us in Times Square, there were plenty of men as well as women lining up for a shot at the newest Tickle Me Elmo doll.

(Soundbite of Tickle Me Elmo)

SMITH: The president of Toys "R" Us, Ron Boire, watched the scramble from the third-floor balcony of the store. He says that opening at 5:00 a.m. is worth it for a retailer, but not because of sales volume.

Mr. RON BOIRE (President of Toys "R" Us): There's a financial importance because it's a huge day, but I think more importantly there's an emotional importance to Black Friday where people kind of wake up and go all right, Christmas is coming and it's time to go out and see what's out there.

SMITH: We've seen the stores opening earlier and earlier on Black Friday, where does it end? Is there a limit to how early you can open the store and start the shopping season?

Mr. BOIRE: I actually think there is. I'm not a fan of midnight openings. I don't think it's good for our employees. I think we want to give our employees time to get home and get some rest from Thanksgiving and start the day at a reasonable hour, if you can call 5 a.m. reasonable.

SMITH: Well, that depends on what's for sale. Back in Brooklyn, Mike and his friend Deb emerge from the Best Buy store in a foul mood.

MIKE: No laptops.

DEB: No laptops.

MIKE: None. It isn't worth it.

DEB: A waste of time.

SMITH: They'd been in line since 11:00 the night before and all they ended up spending was 20 bucks on a stack of blank CDs.

DEB: I could have been at home buying stuff on line.

MIKE: Sleeping. Having a lot more better things to do then sit in line getting pushed around.

SMITH: But even as they warn the rest of the line that the good stuff was gone, nobody seemed willing to give up their spot. As one guy told me he had to come home with something to justify standing out in the cold.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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