WALLA WALLA -- It was a historic Black Friday for America's retail industry with some major retailers opening doors at midnight for the first time, and the Walla Walla area participated with gusto.
The item that apparently drew the most attention and contention? Bath towels, "believe it or not," said Sgt. Todd Smith with the College Place Police Department.
He and three officers arrived at the Walmart on Meadowbrook Drive at 9:30 p.m. Thursday in preparation for that store's 10 p.m. unveiling of advertised Christmas-shopping specials. Including those $1.29 bath towels that caused some minor fighting and harassment of employees, he said, shaking his head. "They were a great deal and they wanted them."
More people, in fact, than Smith has seen during the box store's presence in the area, the officer noted. Shoppers' rigs had filled Walmart's parking lot, spilling over to and behind the Les Schwab Tire Store and every inch in between. "This was the busiest," Smith said. "And the most hostile."
It's the early start, he theorized. The traditional 5 a.m. on Friday start weeded some folks out "who just can't get up that early." But a 10 p.m. Thursday starting gate brought out people who had been up all day. "They've had no sleep and they're grouchy. But we had no injuries and no arrests."
By 1: 45 a.m. business was calm enough for cashiers to clot together at the front of the store and answer customers' questions. In the toy aisles, Phavong Phichith and Stephon Schulze wandered slowly with an empty cart. "We were lounging around at home and decided to come out and be entertained," Phichith explained. "I'm not big into Black Friday."
"We came late to pick up the pieces," Schulze said with a laugh.
While they were hoping to get a little shopping done for their two daughters -- who were snoozing away at home -- there was no real rush, the couple said. However, it was obvious others had felt differently. As a former Walmart employee, he knows about the "hundreds" of shopping carts the store keeps tucked away just for this day, Schulze said, noting a new cart's bright blue handle. "And they busted them out."
In front of the store, a steady line of cars snaked slowly around the corner into the automotive department's parking spaces. Those shoppers had big screen televisions to claim, noted employee Travis King. "Forty inches and up. They're picking them up in Automotive this year. Every year, (Walmart) tries something new."
According to a CNN Money report this morning, trying something new on Black Friday has brought retailers across the country a much-needed dose of Christmas cheer. "Altogether, an estimated 152 million people are expected to shop over Black Friday weekend, up 10 percent from last year," CNN said, quoting a recent report from the National Retail Federation.
Just before the clock struck midnight, eager consumers peered into the brightly-beckoning windows of Macy's on Main Street. Crowds clustered at each of the store's entry doors as jazz music from Marcy's Bar & Lounge on Colville Street poured into the night air, adding to the carnival atmosphere.
People dressed in pajamas and bed head stood shoulder-to-shoulder with folks dressed as if they were at a holiday gathering. Which, no doubt, many had been just a few hours before.
Within minutes, shoppers had their hands full of waffle irons, luggage sets and glitzy handbags. Some struggled to keep hold of multiple pillows in plastic cases as they moved through the masses that filled nearly every nook of the three-floor department store. At the jewelry counter alone, people stood in line two deep around the square of the glass display cases as one beleaguered cashier rang up purchases as fast as she could.
Then there were the boots.
Shoppers, mostly young adults, carried armloads of Rampage boots boxes. Some couples had tag teamed to haul off seven or more pairs of the footwear marked $19.99.
"It's a good buy," noted boot buyer Perles Morales, 22, who was shopping with her husband, Ramon Olmos, 28. He carried his own booty of several dress shirts.
It was the couple's first time to shop so early on Black Friday, of course, and they had not gone to bed at all. Thanksgiving dinner had been served at 2 p.m., specifically for this occasion, Olmos said. Elsewhere in the store, more family members were circulating, presumably filling their arms.
Breakfast plans included gathering together at Shari's restaurant at 6 a.m., Morales said. "Because we still have to go to the 5 a.m. sales."
In the basement housewares department, the din was noticeably muted -- perhaps absorbed by the comforter sets on sale -- as shoppers struggled to move around each other like tunneling ants.
Like an island in the stream, Byron Peterson waited for an answer about cookware from store manager Karie Brodhun. He was at Macy's with his girlfriend and they were considering the Circulon set on sale for $100, he said. "It's a good deal. I guess."
He, too, had not slept, aside from a nap while watching football, Peterson said. Black Friday is not really his thing, he added as consumers carry countertop ovens wove around him. "I would say this is not who I am. We kind of came out to get entertained."
Jake Jimenez, 19, was feeling less entertained and more overwhelmed. He was at Macy's with his parents and girlfriend, he said, nodding toward the checkout lines while sitting atop display bedding. His mom was after a toaster oven, cookware and a blender. "My dad is just here for the debit card," he noted with a smile.
One floor up and a few yards over, the junior girls' clothing section was at a standstill. Young mothers with sleeping babies in strollers were trapped among other shoppers, who seemed to be reacting to a lack of sleep.
Yards away, however, some had dropped to their knees to empty display shelves of electronic gadgets such as digital photo keychains.
Not everyone was leaving with gift goodies. Jeanie Eskildsen was empty-handed and furious, she said.
In Walla Walla to be with family for the holiday, the Montana resident had come out to the call of leather coats on sale. However, the brand of jacket she wanted turned out not to be on sale, despite hanging on a sale rack. "They're getting people here in the middle of the night under false advertisement," she said. "I will never shop here again."
By 3 a.m., employees at Shopko were still marveling over what they had been through, they said -- a parking lot packed full and lines of customers 50 feet long behind each cash register with the midnight showing of "doorbuster" deals.
"We're never like that," said Rosa Palomo, a veteran of four post-Thanksgiving shopping days at the store. "People were so excited. The rush just got over. I have never seen it like this."
Sheila Hagar can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8322.