By Matt Goodman
Killeen Daily Herald
It was 4:58 a.m. Friday when the lights flickered on at Target in Harker Heights.
Two minutes later, a steady, single-file line of about 500 customers began trickling into the store, herded toward the electronics and toy departments.
It was Black Friday, the unofficial kickoff to the bustling holiday shopping season that begins mere hours after refrigerators are stuffed with Thanksgiving leftovers.
"Anything in electronics that is small … will be at the electronics counter," shouted store manager Chris Hinckley to a portion of the line that wrapped around the outside of Target and extended at least two city blocks. "The first to come back there, the first to get in line, they'll be the first to get it."
Hopeful customers began lining up outside the chain store as early as 9 p.m. Thursday to nab deep discounts on highly sought-after items. Big movers at Target were a Westinghouse 32-inch LCD TV for $246, marked down from $429.99; and an APEX 40-inch LCD TV for $449, discounted from $599.99. Both were gone in about 10 minutes.
"The prices are better than last year," said manager Katrino Garcia. "Target has been aggressively discounting quality products."
Lampasas residents Jewelli Wetherell and Michael Alf were at the front of the line, proud to declare that they had weathered the chilly climate for eight hours before the doors would open.
"I'm hoping for a dual DVD player for my 2-year-old and a $25 Christmas tree," Wetherell said. "And I'll probably do this again while I'm young."
Many customers mentioned that the tight economy made the early-morning sale more attractive than seasons past. And a slew of shoppers who traditionally mapped out in-store deals from a physical advertisement chose to follow this year's sales online at one of the myriad Web sites that track Black Friday discounts.
"I wasn't even going to come out tonight," said Copperas Cove resident Chris Fox, adding that he did Black Friday shopping online. "But, the TomTom (GPS System) is $150 off."
Before Harker Heights police and Target employees arrived around 3 a.m., the line outside was more of a gaggle. Customers were told to switch sides and form a line, which caused confusion. Eventually, the customers swapped sides and the line eventually grew to extend past Old Navy, about two blocks down.
Those at the front of the line as the doors opened reviled the "cutters," but those who ended up halfway back after the dust settled said their spot got lost in the shuffle.
"When they made me move, I was the third person in line," said Fort Hood resident and Pfc. Rick Kempf. "I'll try to buy my TV, but I'll be mad if I don't get it."
Kempf ended the morning with the APEX television.
Inside the store
Fifteen minutes before Target was filled with eager deal-seekers, Garcia snaked through the makeshift path that blocked off certain sections of the store and accentuated others.
"All right guys, let's meet at the front," the store manager said into his walkie-talkie. "Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel."
His main focus was safety. Even Garcia wasn't immune to the Black Friday adrenaline rush: He excitedly glided about the store, joking with employees while ensuring that paths were clear.
But he knew the hazard: There would be more than 500 people pouring through one door in less than 15 minutes.
"Safety is our No. 1 thing," he said to his staff of about 50 at the team meeting shortly before the doors opened. "We already know we're going to get a lot of sales. So focus on safety; not just for us, but for our guests."
Prior to opening, employees walked up and down the line, handing out maps that detailed where the discounted items were located. The managers fielded questions and made announcements.
"At this point, people know what they want," Garcia said. "It's our job to show them where it is."
Customers were allowed in through one door at 5 a.m. It took about 20 minutes to get all the shoppers in and the single-file herd was led to the toys and electronics.
"Because we control the traffic that way, we don't have that mass rush," Garcia said.
Garcia would end the morning stationed in front of the registers directing traffic. The checkout line wrapped around the entire store. Customers shouted out rendezvous points into cell-phones, while another loudly asked, "Did you really think they could fit this many people in the store?"
And around 5:30 a.m., Wetherell, who was among the first customers let in, settled into the queue, waiting to check out. That $25 Christmas tree was safely nestled in the undercarriage of her Target shopping cart.
Contact Matt Goodman at email@example.com or (254) 501-7550.