Hours into the busiest shopping day of the year, a well-dressed pair of Belk customers spots something shiny and interesting. But they're a few seconds late.
"No!" one of them shrieks. "That [expletive] got there before we did."
"Did you see the look she just gave us?" her friend asks. "Next store."
Off they went, filtering into perfumed Hamilton Place corridors where shoppers angled through the crowds standing clotted in lines, or rested their feet in the food court.
"It's different than a regular breakfast," Casey Weller said Friday as he munched a Sbarro pepperoni slice at 7:05 a.m. "I stayed up all night. Obviously, it's been worth it."
One of many mother-daughter combos hauling freshly bought jeans, Collegedale residents Shari and Korinn McQuistan know the feeling. Asked why they sloshed through November drizzle for an early morning Target visit, they responded together: "Shopping ... sales!"
"We're a little bit insane," Shari said with a Red Bull-inspired giggle. "But I wouldn't miss this. It's a unique experience."
Retailers view Black Friday as a turbo kick-start to the holiday season, luring customers with predawn opening times and deals that encourage numerous purchases.
By about 2 a.m., as cold rain fell, the line to get into Best Buy on Gunbarrel Road wrapped around the building. Hundreds waited for a chance at doorbuster sales, which included TVs, computers, digital cameras and DVDs.
Store manager Jamie Stogsdill said employees began letting people in 50 at a time when the store opened at 5 a.m. She said all 180 employees at the location were scheduled to help.
"We always have a line out front [on Black Friday]," Stogsdill said. "Realistically, the average consumer knows what it's going to be like. They understand and, even with it raining outside, people are grinning and bearing it."
Ringgold residents Tiffney Talley and Brian Holman said they probably won't wade through the crowds again next year.
"It's a good experience to say you've done it once, but it would have to be a great deal to get me out here again," said Holman, who had a 32-inch flat-screen TV and a Wii video game system in his shopping cart.
Still, some said it's worth getting up early, dealing with crowds of customers and waiting in long lines to snag the best deals possible.
"We've been pushed and shoved a lot, but it's been fun," McMinn Central High School student Lauren Barnett said. "I could do it again."
And that's what retailers count on to bring people back to their stores year after year despite heavy crowds.
Chip Green, store manager of Kohl's on Gunbarrel Road, said his staff came to work with high energy, hoping to pass it along to the 800 customers waiting in the parking lot for the doors to open at 3 a.m.
"You have to be able to keep up, and keeping the floor stocked makes a huge difference," he said.
Electronics, a perennial favorite on Black Friday, were still some of the biggest attractions at the Hixson Walmart.
Chattanooga native Brandy Abels spent part of the 5 a.m. hour standing in line for an eight gigabyte iPod Touch that came with a $50 Walmart gift card. Abels first got to the store at 11 p.m. Thanksgiving night to snag some pajamas for her kids at the midnight sale.
"It was worse then. You couldn't move in here," said Abels, a 10-year veteran of the Black Friday stampede. "Sometimes there's nothing here I even want. I just like to come here to see people."
Northgate Mall experimented this year and, for the first time, opened a handful of stores to shoppers at midnight. Joe Janosko, senior general manager at the mall, said he was pleased with how many shoppers he saw.
"It was really impressive to see the strong turnout," he said. "Bricks-and-mortar retail has strategically found a way to compete with the Internet by offering more promotional shopping at atypical shopping hours.
"It's been an eye opener for me."