The traffic signals are ready, reprogrammed to give more time for tens of thousands of turns off Route 7 and onto Retail Boulevard. Five Guys has ordered 3,000 pounds of potatoes for french fries, double the usual. And fleets of salespeople at Hecht's are prepared to straighten and refold stacks of cashmere sweaters on the hour.
Tysons Corner Center, a veritable city of 2.3 million square feet with 53,000 shoppers on a normal day last year, was ready for a busy day yesterday. This was Black Friday, when the crowds grow by the thousands, to 70,000 last year at Tysons, where the first stores open at 5 a.m. and the last close at 11 p.m. This is the day when retailers begin the holiday shopping season in earnest, the time when they'll rake in nearly 20 percent of their annual sales. This is the day the red ink traditionally begins to turn black.
Yesterday's crowds and the bargains they pursued gave assurance that tradition would hold.
At 4:33 a.m. yesterday, the mass of concrete, steel and glass was brightly lit even though the sun had yet to come up. "Frosty the Snowman" blared over the loudspeakers, and Disney Store manager Eileen Brown was operating on about four hours of sleep.
The store would open in about half an hour, the first of the mall's nearly 300 retailers to let shoppers in.
Brown cracked the security gate about 15 minutes before opening to admit a tardy employee. She had 25 seasonal workers to help handle the crowds. Already, a handful of early-bird shoppers was waiting outside, wallets at the ready.
"It'll just be a few more minutes," Brown told them.
To customers, Black Friday means one thing: bargains.
5 a.m.: First Stores Open
If Tysons and other malls were preparing for a marathon day, the big-box stores were ready for wind sprints.
The first customer to get through the sliding doors of the Wal-Mart on Fair Lakes Parkway in Fairfax County had been sitting outside the store in frigid temperatures since Thursday at 6:30 p.m. Others spent the night camped in tents in the parking lot.
It took Wal-Mart store manager Lee Lowe nearly half an hour to usher hundreds of people waiting outside into the store for the 5 a.m. opening, under the watchful eye of police and amid some pushing and shoving. Those last in line had little chance of getting their hands on two of the big specials of the morning: a 42-inch plasma TV for $997 and an HP Pavilion laptop for $398. They were gone within minutes.
Anna Lam of Centreville packed her cart with 12 two-quart slow cookers, on sale for $3.98. She couldn't resist the price, she said, and would give some to friends and family.
About 2 million shoppers across the country rushed into Wal-Mart during the first hour after opening, the company estimated, pursuing 5 a.m.-to-11 a.m. specials.
"We feel pretty energized," said Gail Lavielle, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman.
This year retailers offered bigger promotions -- and earlier openings -- than they have in the past, according to the National Retail Federation.
"This year, retailers have learned the meaning of the phrase, 'If you discount, they will come,' " federation President Tracy Mullin said in a written statement. "Lukewarm promotions on Black Friday won't get consumers out of bed, so most stores went all out this year to ensure that they were part of the holiday hype."
Yesterday the trade group said that retail sales for the holiday weekend could surpass the $22.8 billion spent last year, with about 130 million shoppers nationwide.
There were so many shoppers at the Wal-Mart store in Kingstowne that Fairfax County police asked the store to reduce the crowd.
Phyllis Whittaker of Florida, 63, who was visiting her daughter and grandchildren in Burke, said she witnessed a scuffle between shoppers at the Wal-Mart she visited, where she arrived at 3:30 a.m. for the 5 a.m. opening, only to find the laptop she had been angling for was sold out.
At 6:30 a.m., Whittaker was standing in line again, this time at the Hecht's at Tysons, where the usual 400 employees had been reinforced with several hundred more. Whittaker had a new quilt under her arm, and her granddaughter, Kaitlyn Christopher, 13, was carrying Waterford crystal ornaments and a bag of cashmere sweater sets. A boxed breakfast griddle sat at her feet.
The two planned to spend the entire day shopping, with just a few breaks to walk Kaitlyn's dogs, Coco and Cinnamon. But before they even got to the cash register, Kaitlyn let out a long yawn.
"I can't help it," she said.
Noon: Crowds in Full Force
The escalators were packed with shoppers, and moms pushing strollers could barely navigate the aisles. The line at Starbucks had long before stretched well past the entrance. Strangers shared tables in the food court.
The smell of french fries hung thickly around local burger chain Five Guys. The crowd was six people deep for bacon cheeseburgers and Cajun fries.
"It's controlled mayhem," said Ed Pizzarello, who runs the Tysons store and three others in the Washington area.
The staff of about 15 had arrived at 6 a.m. to start cooking: 2,300 slices of bacon, 3,200 burger patties and 1,200 servings of fries. By 10 a.m., Pizzarello said, hungry customers began to nose around the stand. He began serving a few minutes later, nearly an hour before normal opening time.
By noon, the burger-making had taken on assembly-line perfection. Two people did nothing but grill patties; two more crisped the fries; others handled the dressings; and one guy with a big voice called out to customers when orders were ready.
Pizzarello said he was on track to beat a $15,000 daily sales record.
"We're ready to do $60,000 by Monday," he said. "We're ready. Whether or not people come, that's another story."
Eric Kulczycky, spokesman for the Macerich Co., which operates Tysons, said that some retailers were reporting traffic increases of as much as 25 percent by early yesterday afternoon.
At Westfield Shoppingtown Montgomery, Radio Shack had opened at 4 a.m. and was still bustling with shoppers. One salesman urged a reluctant Salisbury State college student to "Hurry! There's still 59 minutes for our early-bird specials!"
Agitated and overwhelmed by the crowded store, Stephanie Failor excused herself, leaving her mom behind.
"I thought it was going to be a lot more fun, but every store you go into, the salespeople attack you," said Failor, 21. "I just have to get out."
The Target store in Rockville had opened at 6 a.m., with 300 to 500 people waiting, many of them for a 15-inch LCD TV at $188, store manager Jim Cioffi said. The 300 TVs were gone in 45 minutes.
"They were professional and civil," Cioffi said. "They all had their ads and they were ready to roll."
4 p.m.: Winding Down
Jessica Taylor, 33, was a late bloomer: She didn't arrive at Tysons until about 9:30 a.m.
But by 4 p.m. Taylor, who lives in West Virginia, was surrounded by shopping bags as she examined shoes at L.L. Bean. Gap? Check. Bath & Body Works? Check. Yankee Candle, Nordstrom and Bloomingdale's? Check.
"Round one," Taylor said with a smile. She planned to hit Tysons Galleria later in the day and spend the night at a nearby Marriott before heading home.
"It's pretty much adrenaline," she said of her marathon shopping excursion.
Alma Ramirez, 47, was not so perky. She and a half-dozen friends had stormed Potomac Mills before going on to Tysons, where she rested in front of Bloomingdale's with eight shopping bags at her feet. Her mother, 83-year-old Clara Zepeda, sat next to her.
"We're taking a break," Ramirez said. "I'm very tired."
Yesterday was Ramirez's first Black Friday, with its spectacular crowds, bargains and traffic. It had taken her nearly an hour to drive to Tysons from her home in College Park, but her filled shopping bags suggested she had found the sales that brought her here.
Perhaps, she said, she would return next year.
It all depends on the sales.
Staff writers Dana Hedgpeth, Elissa Silverman and Joshua Zumbrun contributed to this report.