When Diane McLaughlin accepted her husband John's invitation for a post-Thanksgiving dinner car ride, she didn't know where he planned to take her.
Much to Diane's surprise and delight, the North Middletown couple pulled into the parking lot of Target, at Route 35 and Palmer Avenue.
"My husband said 'Let's go for a ride,' and we ended up here," said a smiling McLaughlin as she stood bundled up for warmth in front of the store's main entrance about an hour before its midnight opening.
It was about 5:15 p.m. when the McLaughlins, both in their 40s, arrived at the front doors of the department store. They took second place behind another couple, Dougie Sprague, 27, and Kelly Geant, 25, both of Sayreville.
Desiring a Westinghouse 46-inch, LCD-screen, high definition television on sale for $298, Sprague and Geant had arrived just 15 minutes earlier to claim first place in line.
"That's one of the biggest deals," Sprague said.
The two couples became fast friends, holding each other's places while they took restroom or coffee breaks at the Exxon across Palmer Avenue or the Quick Chek behind Target.
"You build a rapport with someone you sit six hours waiting outside a store with," John McLaughlin explained.
By the time, Target actually opened, the couples and others who eventually lined up behind them were together close to seven hours.
Like Sprague, John McLaughlin also wanted the 46-inch screen television. Without missing a beat, he rattled off his wish list.
"An iPod Touch, a notebook computer, an XBox Connect [game system] and a TomTom [global positioning system]," he said.
Target's midnight deals were worth waiting for even on a cold, but clear night according to Sprague and Geant.
"There's an XBox Connect for $99," Sprague said. "You get three games. You buy one and get the third free."
"There's a notebook [computer] for $157, DVDs for $9 apiece, and an IPod Nano for $129," Geant added.
As the foursome waited with just an hour to opening, two of Target's uniformed security officers stood nearby. A Middletown Township police officer also carefully eyed those at the front of the line.
By 11:15 p.m. the line of "guests" — the term used by Minneapolis-based Target Corporation to describe its customers — snaked around the store's southern side and to the back of the building. A township patrol vehicle parked with its high beams cutting through the darkness was stationed behind the store.
Lt. Bryan McKnight, who headed the patrol unit of four township police officers and a K-9, estimated that nearly 300 patrons had arrived by that time. Police had begun their watch over the scene at 9 p.m., he said.
Target's security would allow 30 patrons inside the store every 15 minutes after the strike of midnight providing that the crowd remained orderly, McKnight said.
"So far, so good. It's been very calm," McKnight said as he looked over the crowd. "Everyone seems to be cooperating."
The McLaughlins, Sprague, and Geant expressed regrets, yet praise for Target employees who had left their own Thankgiving tables early to report to work and to serve customers.
"I feel bad for them," Geant said. "But they came out and gave us candy bars, maps, and coupons."
Others in line also appreciated the gesture by Target workers, many holding the store maps as they waited to shop.
Sprague, in particular, commended township police for maintaining crowd control and showing a presence that would keep patrons in line, without intimidation.
"They've been very respectful of us too," he said.
Throughout the line, adults and children, mostly of middle and high school age, stood talking and laughing, sat in canvas lawn chairs or wrapped themselves in blankets as they waited. They drank coffee and other hot drinks, ate snacks, talked on cell phones, or read books.
At the adjacent Quick Chek on Cherry Tree Farm Road, the coffee and snack business began booming soon after 10 p.m. according to one barrista. Cars came in and out of its lots and Target patrons walked over to the convenience store for sustenance.
As a corporation, Quick Chek itself would be offering early morning shoppers free coffee after midnight. However, those walking over from Target didn't seem to mind paying for their cups of joe prior to midnight.
"I had hot chocolate, a salad and a brownie from the Quick Chek," said Tami Alt of Keansburg as she sat wrapped in a blanket behind the McLaughlins' spot in line.
"We want three IPods, a big screen TV, pots, and toys," Alt said as she waited with her husband Shawn, her daughter Kerri Yuelling, and her daughter's boyfriend, Korrie O'Hanlon, also of Keansburg.
About three miles south of Target on Route 35, the parking lot of Kohl's and other nearby stores presented a different scenario. By 10:45 p.m. only about five vehicles had were waiting in that store's parking lot.
This year marks the first year that both Target and Wisconsin-based Kohl's have opened their doors for Black Friday sales at midnight. Both national chains have been in business since 1962.
Target, in particular, came under fire on the national level after a store employee in Nebraska began an online petition to roll back the company's opening hour to 5 a.m. as has been the case before. As of Thanksgiving Day, nearly 200,000 persons nationwide had signed the petition according to the web site, change.org.
However, in an article on the Target web site, a corporate official defended the company's midnight opening saying that customers had asked the chain to kick off its Black Friday sales immediately after Thanksgiving.