Twin Cities consumers by the thousands left the warmth of home and family on Thanksgiving night to descend on major retailers in search of deep discounts on gifts for others and treats for themselves as stores push ahead the starting line for Black Friday.

It's a scene playing out all across the nation as the brick-and-mortar Target, Wal-Mart, Kmart and other coast-to-coast chains lock horns with one another and their online competitors, opening their doors on a day once reserved for family, turkey, football and gratitude.

Craig Bouta and his girlfriend, Theresa Epps, arrived at 4 a.m. at the Burnhaven Mall Kmart Burnsville on what they dubbed "Brown Thursday." They were first in line.

The Prior Lake couple traded in Thanksgiving dinner at Epps' mother's house and instead were hunkered down in lawn chairs, wearing winter hats, parkas and munching on ham sandwiches waiting for the store's 8 p.m. opening.

Bouta, 26, and Epps, 23, were lured in by ads for 50-inch televisions; the store was selling eight of them at $288.

"This for me; I'm spoiling myself," Bouta said. "This is Craigs-giving."

Once he has that gargantuan TV secured, Bouta added, he has a few other things on his list, possibly including a television for his mother.

By 6 p.m., there were 48 people outside the store, sharing small talk, music and even a tent.

Despite the uncertain economy, the National Retail Federation predicts a relatively robust 4.1 percent jump from last year to $586.1 billion this holiday shopping season.

The competition is brutal this season as retailers undercut one another's prices. That means lower profits, so stores are doing all they can to pump up sales volume: free shipping, extended return periods and online price matching.

Angela Bandt, of Hastings, arrived about 6:30 p.m. at the Wal-Mart along Interstate 494 in Bloomington. She was among a party of five women -- sisters, cousins, aunts. They ate early and came armed with ads and a plan to shop through the night as stores open, ending up at the Mall of America. It's become a tradition, she said.

How will they keep up the energy and holiday cheer?

"We laugh at each other, and we tell jokes," she said.

Shoppers dashed across the full parking lot, dodging snowflakes and fighting a stiff wind that slapped their cheeks and set shopping bags flapping.

At 8:15 p.m., 140 people were in line as Richfield SuperTarget's 9 p.m. opening neared. Most were eager to bag bargains, but a few expressed reservations.

Zack Bloch, of Eagan, said he was "kind of dragged" into the cold and the wind.

"When is it going to stop?" he asked. "It kind of takes away from the holiday of Thanksgiving."

'But yet I'm here'

Amanda Jentink, of Richfield, felt for the workers.

"It makes me feel really bad that people have to sacrifice part of their holiday to come in to work," she said, pausing to reflect. "But yet I'm here."

Inside the store, however, a legion of workers in red shirts chatted and laughed as the minutes ticked down. Executive team leader Marisa Schloer offered a pep talk.

"Smile," she said. "We're going to have a great night!"

After Schloer unlocked the front doors, shoppers filed in; most made a beeline to electronics, which actually spilled along the corridors into men's and women's wear.

Shoppers packed the walkways, calling to workers for directions by make and model.

"Apex, 32-inch?"

"Samsung LED?"

Many seemed to get what they wanted. Others got more.

Liz Grzechowiak, a seasoned Black Friday deal hunter, got into line for $3 girls' tutus. She left with a 40-inch Westinghouse LED television, at her husband's suggestion. It was on sale for $349, which seemed like a good deal.

"He figured if you're that far up in the line, you should get a TV," she said. "So my savvy shopping ended up with a TV."

Before dawn

Just after 5 a.m. Friday, Justin Whitcomb slumped to the floor outside Bath and Bodyworks on the secomd floor of Rosedale mall, surrounded by shopping bags. He and his wife had been there since the mall opened at midnight.

"We got all of our Christmas shopping done pretty much tonight," he said of his Black Friday marathon.

He's been out on Black Friday with his wife and sister-in-law for three years straight. She's been doing this for 10 years now, he said.

Anything different about the event for him this year?

"Starting earlier," said the weary Anoka man. "That's the new thing."

-- Staff Writer James Walsh contributed to this article.

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409