The parking lot at Verizon's Ooltewah store was packed Friday, with a line of customers stretching from a hastily erected tent to the edge of the property.
Nearby, more than 50 customers showed up early to the Hamilton Place Best Buy, with some arriving as early as 5 a.m., and dozens more packed into the Hamilton Place Sprint store, where a huge iPhone 4S banner hung at the entrance.
Apple's iPhone 4S, the latest in a series of handheld hits for the Cupertino, Calif.-based company, drove consumers to retailers in droves, making Friday one of the largest phone launches ever.
Sprint, which began selling iPhones for the first time Friday, recorded its best sales day by noon.
"The response to this device by current and new customers has surpassed our expectations and validates our customers' desire for a truly unlimited data pricing plan," Sprint product chief Farid Adib said.
Customers seemed not to bother tinkering with display units, making a beeline instead for the checkout counter.
"These people know what they want," said Chris Humphries, Verizon's district manager.
Even Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak was in line in Los Gatos, Calif., to buy the company's flagship phone, according to the Associated Press.
In Chattanooga, Luke Gawthrop, 24, got up early to pick up the smartphone when the Ooltewah Verizon store opened at 8 a.m.
Gawthrop said he can't wait to stream music and use the GPS mapping software, which his old Casio phone couldn't do.
"My ex got the iPhone 4 two weeks ago, and I really liked it," he said. "I thought I'd spend the extra $50 and get the 4S."
AT&T, which originally had a monopoly on the touchscreen device and has some experience with launch-day crowds, hoped to clamp down on traditionally long lines by offering an app for existing iPhone users to upgrade to the new iPhone from home, said AT&T spokeswoman Cathy Lewandowski.
"Those who pre-ordered their phone online, through the AT&T upgrader app or in stores will all have their phones shipped directly to their homes for convenience -- they will not be available in-store for pickup," she said.
Bells and whistles
Most of the upgrades to the standard iPhone 4 are under the hood, including a faster processor, an 8 megapixal camera and a voice-activated personal assistant named Siri.
The program can schedule an appointment, search the Web or find a movie, and it even understands Southerners' accent.
Pressing a button and asking, "how many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop" results in a two-second pause before the answer, retrieved from the Internet, pops up: "3,481, according to University of Cambridge researchers."
But the much-hyped feature isn't perfect.
Saying, "iPhone 4S review" resulted in no results, and the new operating system isn't yet compatible with all existing programs.
The app for The Economist magazine loaded in the store demo unit was headed with a note from the publisher warning of incompatibilities in the new operating system.
But customers didn't seem to care, Humphries said.
"All these people are here for the iPhone," he said, nodding to the groups of customers waiting to check out. "A lot of people are buying more than one."
Aimee Papson bought a new iPhone as two young children in tow looked on. She planned to surprise her son later in the morning for his 13th birthday.
"He thinks he's getting a normal iPhone, but he doesn't know he's getting this one," she said with a wry smile. "I love it -- I think I want one too."
So do a lot of other consumers.
More than a million customer ordered the phone online -- a new record, according to the Associated Press.
However, the surprisingly strong demand for the device, which is externally unchanged from its predecessor, could create yet another shortage of Apple's hot product.
In fact, sales could top 2 million in unit sales through the launch, said Best Buy manager Stacy Bowling.
"Inventory is tight," Bowling said. "From what I'm getting, [Apple is] sold out."
UTC student Brody Contarino wasn't happy to hear that he could miss out on buying his first smartphone, which he had ordered.
"I got here at 5:15 a.m., but then they didn't have my pre-order," he said. "It sounds like Apple just ships them whatever they've got, regardless of what type of phone you order."
But that didn't deter him from waiting for Best Buy to open as the clock ticked toward 10 a.m.
"I've never had a smartphone before. I've never even had an iPhone," he said. "But this time, I've really bought into the hype."