By ABBY SOUZA and The Associated Press
Vanessa Sheehan and Stacie Melquiadez, both of Angels Camp, got to the Sonora Wal-Mart parking lot at 4:30 a.m. and couldn't believe it. They were already late.
"It's insane," Sheehan said as she stood among 200-plus people.
Even though they arrived at the store an hour and a half before opening time, the two women were probably about 40th in line.
"I was very surprised to see all the people here," Melquiadez said.
New to the early morning day-after-Thanksgiving sales, the women said they had hoped the rumors they've heard about the predawn crowds on this day the official opening of the holiday shopping season were untrue.
Based on the crowd and the anxious, even tense, tone of many in line, the rumors are true, they realized upon arriving. By the time the store opened at 6 a.m., the line was roughly 500 strong and wound around the parking lot in front.
Second in line at Wal-Mart were Dawn Revard, sister Nicky Davenport and their friend, Shannon Nau. These Sonora residents got to their spot at 2:50 a.m.
"This is our sixth year," Nicky Davenport said. "You can't get the cheap prices if you're not here when they open. Most of the good stuff is gone by 6:30 a.m."
Like most shoppers in the line, these women were heading to electronics first, hoping to score a VCR/DVD player for $98 and a 27-inch television for $148.98. They were also shopping for toys and bikes for their children.
The women said they planned to get all their Christmas shopping done today.
"I'll be done here by 8 a.m., back in my jammies and back in bed," Revard said.
Over at The Junction shopping center in East Sonora, Marie and Cori Davenport Nicky Davenport and Revard's mother and sister were first in line at Kay Bee Toys at 4:15 a.m. The store opened at 5 a.m. to a line of shoppers that stretched to Albertson's.
"It ran really smooth," Marie Davenport said of her Kay Bee shopping experience. "Very calm, considering it was all women."
As she spoke of that shopping, she had joined the rest of the family in the Wal-Mart line.
Once the doors opened, a rush of customers poured in. Mary Hendrickson, a Wal-Mart employee, says there wasn't the pushing and shoving she has seen in previous years. This is the tenth day-after-Thanksgiving that Hendrickson has worked.
Despite this morning's crowds in Sonora, retail industry analysts are predicting that consumers overall will be tight-fisted this year.
The nation's largest merchants have protected themselves with lean inventories to avoid mounds of leftovers on Dec. 26. But stores might also have the opposite problem finding themselves with not enough merchandise if consumers decide to splurge.
The Washington-based National Retail Federation predicts total holiday retail sales, which exclude restaurant and auto sales, will increase by 4 percent to roughly $209.25 billion. That would make it the weakest increase since 1997.