The thin gray light of dawn revealed a parking lot crammed with cars at the Wal-Mart in Lehighton this morning. The shoppers had begun arriving at the mega-merchant and other stores hours earlier, geared up for a frenzy of bargain-hunting.
Popular belief holds that "Black Friday," the day after Thanksgiving, marks the shift for retailers from red to black ink. This year, as a capsized economy struggles to right itself, retail organizations predict plummeting prices and escalating numbers of shoppers.
Among them were Lucinda and Robert Anthony, who left their cozy Lehighton home at 4 a.m., driving through a chill drizzle to Wal-Mart in search of a 32-inch television.
"It wasn't too bad," she said. "They were open all night long. They had lines forming to (certain) areas. We told the clerks what we wanted and got in line."
The Anthonys were 47th in line for the 65 televisions the retail giant was offering.
It was Lucinda's second Black Friday experience.
"I think it was little bit more organized" than last year. "You didn't have the mad rush. I don't think it was as crowded as last year."
Indeed, by about 8 a.m., one visitor observed that there were plenty of parking spaces to be found.
One reason for that is a change in the way Wal-Mart handles Black Friday crowds. Last year, a 34-year-old Wal-Mart employee in New York was trampled to death by a frenzied mob of shoppers. Now, the company provides online maps and catalogs of special sale items. Shoppers queue up in lines rather than stampede into the store in search of the Black Friday bargains.
But it wasn't just the megastores that reaped Black Friday profits.
Shea's Hardware, Palmerton, was doing a brisk business Friday morning.
"It's very busy here," said owner Bernie Shea.
"We opened at the normal time, 8 a.m., and it seems like it's pretty steady," employee George Kattner said.
The store started its seasonal sale on Monday, offering deep discounts on appliances, tools and decorations until Christmas.
A few blocks away at My Store, owner Dean Meckes opened his doors two hours early, at 7 a.m. instead of the regular 9 a.m. He offered coupons and slashed prices storewide by 10 percent all day Friday.
"The crowds were a little below last year, but with the economy the way it is, I'm pleased," he said.
Meckes said shoppers were a little more cautious than in years past.
"They are definitely more frugal," he said. "Instead of buying five pairs of jeans for the week, they'll buy three pair and wash them more often. I'm definitely seeing a difference in the shopping patterns."
But even though shoppers are budgeting better, they are still expected to come out in droves.
According to the National Retail Federation, up to 134 million people will shop today, Saturday or Sunday, higher than the 128 million people who planned to do so last year. According to the survey, 57 million people say they will definitely hit the stores while another 77 million are waiting to see what retailers are planning before heading out the door.
"Regardless of what we've already seen these last few weeks in terms of promotions, retailers still have a few tricks up their sleeves to excite Black Friday shoppers," said Tracy Mullin, NRF president and CEO. "With retailers fully aware that shoppers are looking for incredible deals, Americans can expect huge sales on popular items like toys, electronics and apparel."
Not only are shoppers lined up for Black Friday specials, they are also expected to avoid the crowds by hitting Cyber Monday deals online.
"As an increased number of retailers offer special Black Friday promotions on their Web sites, more than one-quarter (27.6 percent) will shop online," the National Retail Federation said.
Shopping online will allow people to avoid travel. And, according to Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission spokesman Carl DeFebo, there will be lots of cars on the road. The turnpike commission looks at past holidays to gauge projections for upcoming ones.
"We did expect a little bit of an increase in vehicles this year," he said. "Turnpike officials expect more than 2.1 million vehicles to travel the turnpike throughout the five-day Thanksgiving holiday period that started Wednesday and will continue through Sunday. It's the busiest holiday of the year on the toll road system."
The turnpike commission has modified construction and maintenance work to allow maximum use of the roadway; at least four lanes will be open until 6 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 30, except in emergencies, DeFebo said.
"Some roadwork that does not impact lanes may continue behind barriers in some areas, reducing shoulder widths."
As shoppers traveled and bought on this Black Friday, many passed by construction sites of retail dreams to come: both a Super Wal-Mart in Mahoning Township and a new Country Junction in Towamensing Township are being built.
But while credit cards are zipped through readers and shoppers grab at toys, trendy new clothes and the latest electronic gizmos, the real values could be found around dining room tables on Thursday, where families gathered and gave thanks before digging into roast turkey, savory stuffing, tart-sweet cranberry sauce and tasty pumpkin pie.
The day offered a chance for generations to keep in touch, for grandmothers, mothers and daughters to catch up as they stirred gravy and piled warm rolls in baskets, for grandfathers, fathers and sons to whoop and holler as Cowboys rode to victory over the Oakland Raiders.
For those who have had the misfortune of losing jobs, area food banks made sure tables held a bounty of food. The increased need was evident at the Shepherd House in Palmerton, where 181 families asked for help, up from 130-140 last year.
"We've been very fortunate in that we always find so that we can provide," said executive director the Rev. Stanley Haupt.
There was bounty, too, to nourish the soul, as many churches, including Faith Alive United Methodist Church in Palmerton, held Thanksgiving services on Wednesday evening.