While you were sleeping, Laura Milman was shopping.
The Mount Prospect mom started her Black Friday shopping trip at 6 p.m. Thursday lining up inside her local Walmart two hours before the doorbusters went on sale. Then, after midnight, she, her mom and her two teenage nieces followed a carefully plotted plan that took them to a few other suburban stores, where they snatched up 90 percent of their holiday gifts at bargain prices.
Milman spent weeks strategizing their Black Friday shopping, using websites, newspaper ads, and phone calls to understand each store's ticketing process for limited-stock sale items.
"I love it. I have a blast," Milman said. "But it's definitely getting more competitive. You've got to be smart and map out where in the store you want to go."
Milman is among thousands of suburban shoppers who view today -- the biggest shopping day of the year -- as a competitive hunt for the best bargains. There are different types of Black Friday shoppers, though. Some only go out seeking one or two specific sale items. Others shop just for fun, because it's part of their Thanksgiving tradition.
And, of course, there are those whom you couldn't pay to go out on Black Friday, preferring to skip the crowds, lines and strange hours for online shopping.
Whatever your preference, the holiday shopping season is now officially under way. The National Retail Federation estimates shoppers will spend an average of $750 this holiday season, and retail sales could top $586 billion.
With that much at stake, retailers are getting more competitive with each other -- and so are the shoppers. Milman once grabbed the last doorbuster-priced Blu-ray DVD player off the shelf just seconds before another person did, and admits to tearing cellophane wrap off a stack of Crockpots along with other Walmart shoppers, even though the item wasn't supposed to go on sale for another few hours.
Darcy Vazquez, of Elk Grove Village, isn't that aggressive during her annual Black Friday shopping trips. However, the mother of two has waited in three-hour-long lines. She passed the time by texting her sister who was in a different line, people watching, and making friendly conversations with her fellow shoppers.
"If there's something that's a great deal, that we know that we really want, then we're competitive. The other stuff, no," Vazquez said. "We just have fun. If we don't get it, it's OK. It's a really nice sister thing for us to do every year."
That's how Carrie Maraccini, of Elgin, feels about Black Friday. After her family's Thanksgiving meal in Buffalo Grove, six members of the family go through the newspaper ads together. Her husband organizes the ads alphabetically, and together, they map out a plan. Grandma comes over to watch the kids, and the adults go on their overnight shopping trip, culminating with a pre-drawn breakfast.
Once, to get the then-new Wii video game system, Maraccini's husband camped out at Best Buy.
Maraccini speaks of Black Friday nostalgically, remembering when stores didn't open until 4 a.m. and handed out free samples and other promotions -- and when people seemed less grouchy and the crowds were smaller and less pushy.
"Now, everyone's out there. Last year, I drove past the Elgin Walmart at midnight, and you literally could not drive in the parking lot. There were cars lined up in every single aisle. I didn't even attempt to go in," she said, noting that it's often worth the drive to go to far-flung chain stores.
Despite the bad reputation Black Friday shoppers have, Maraccini said most people she encounters in the stores are actually polite and friendly, and will do nice things like offer up their cart if they're done with it.
"This year, I don't have a lot of cash to spend, but I go because it's fun," she said. "It's my treat."