A sluggish economy didn't stop shoppers from as far away as Washington and California from gathering outside Medford department stores in the wee hours of Black Friday, the traditional launch of the holiday shopping season.

A sluggish economy didn't stop shoppers from as far away as Washington and California from gathering outside Medford department stores in the wee hours of Black Friday, the traditional launch of the holiday shopping season.

Courteny Tucker, 30, and Niece Whaley, 28, of Grants Pass arrived first in line outside Kohl's at 2 a.m., well ahead of its 4 a.m. opening. They came prepared with walkie-talkies, leftover stuffing sandwiches, chairs and blankets for their second year of Black Friday shopping together.

The bargains could be better, they said.

"(There's) not as great of deals this year," said Tucker.

The pair, bundled up in layers and covered in blankets, said despite the drizzly fog, the temperature definitely was warmer this year at 40 degrees. By 3:30 a.m. they had been joined by roughly 60 other shoppers, with more arriving every moment.

Many shoppers choose the divide-and-conquer strategy for Black Friday, historically the day when stores' budgets rise into the black for the year.

Julie Quigley, 40, journeyed to Medford from Weed, Calif. — an annual pilgrimage the day after Thanksgiving — to join a line that had grown to hundreds of shoppers outside Kohl's by 3:45 a.m. Her husband went to Sears for a flat-screen TV.

Others lined up outside Joe's, lured there by the promise of gift cards ranging from $5 to $500 for the first 200 shoppers. The bait was attractive enough to draw Jerry Dempsy, 47, of Central Point, who said he typically goes to the Black Bird Shopping Center for $23 Levis on Black Friday. If his gift card proved valuable enough, he planned to grab some camping gear and a new fishing rod.

The biggest crowd gathered at Wal-Mart, where the line stretched three-quarters around the building. At the first bend, Conly and Betty Merritt of Hooper, Wash., waited for their chance at the DVDs and cameras and praised Wal-Mart for handing out store maps this year. "We know right where to go," Betty said.

For store employees, it was just another Black Friday. "It's the same routine. Get everyone here at 3 o'clock," said Tracy Hughes, assistant store manager at J.C. Penney Co. Inc.

"We're expecting the same or better," Hughes said of the turnout. "This is tradition for them."

For George Strickland, security officer at the Rogue Valley Mall, this Black Friday was his first. He was out patrolling the mall property, watching for shoplifters, fender benders and fights over parking spots.

"I'm surprised there's this many people here with the economy. I don't know why they're not home sleeping," Strickland said with a smile.

Once the shopping began at Kohl's, hundreds of people descended into the store with ads and lists in hand. Shoppers searched the aisles and bumped their way past each other. Barbara Waler, 48, working her third Black Friday, acted something like a traffic director and price checker all at once.

"It's just as busy, if not busier," said Waler. "We didn't know what to expect."

Preliminary reports from major retailers including Macy's, KB Toys Inc., Best Buy Co. and Toys "R" Us said the crowds were at least as large as last year's nationwide. But analysts said sales Friday may not match the year-ago levels as Americans, worried about layoffs, dwindling retirement accounts and tightening credit, slash their holiday budgets.

After all the early-bird sales have expired, after all is said and bought, how does a shopper spend the rest of his Black Friday?

"Sleeping or fishing," Jerry Dempsy said.

Dawn Hatchard is a Southern Oregon University student and freelance writer living in Gold Hill.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.