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BROCKTON, Mass. (MainStreet) - Black Friday shoppers began lining up outside stores as early as Thursday morning, braving near-freezing temperatures in hopes of scoring discounts on merchandise as the 2010 holiday shopping season officially kicked off.

At the

Toys R Us

in Brockton, Mass., approximately 250 people had gathered outside the store by 9:30 p.m., the line snaking through the parking lot behind the store. While the

retailer had announced that stores would open at 10 p.m.

on Thanksgiving, Massachusetts state law required stores to keep their doors shut until the clock struck midnight. News of the midnight opening was announced by a printed sign hung in the window and confirmed by a lone security guard appointed to keep the peace.

"It was supposed to be 10, right?" I asked the put-upon sentry.

"That's what everyone is telling me," he said.

As the news traveled down the line, some balked at the prospect of waiting another two hours and left; a few others speculated that this was simply

a rumor intended to scare off other shoppers and shorten the line

. At the front of the line, a group seated in lawn chairs and huddled under blankets told me that they had arrived at 6 p.m.

A smaller contingent gathered at

Best Buy

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, which wouldn't open its doors until 5 a.m. At the front of the line, a family of three slept in sleeping bags on beach chairs; one of them woke just long enough to report that they had arrived at 8:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day. Another group, sick of fielding questions from curious onlookers, had put up a sign (below) answering some frequently-asked questions.

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Despite the cold, the prospect of waiting another seven hours, and a forecast of rain arriving around 3 a.m., the Best Buy group was enthusiastic about the

deals that awaited them

. Expensive electronics and appliances ruled the day.

"I'm getting two laptops, two TVs, and an iPod," said Carmen Gonzalez, who had also camped out the year before. "I ate early so I could get here early."

Another woman announced her intention to save $1,400 on a washer-dryer set and a laptop (Best Buy's circular is advertising a washer-dryer set from


for $1,000, marked down from $2,000). She laughed when she heard of the lines at Toys R Us. "That's just toys!" she said. "They're not saving $1,400, they're out there to save $20 on Elmo?"

Best Buy was hardly the only retailer offering enormous savings today. A retail sector stung by two straight years of lagging holiday sales has been pulling out all the stops to get shoppers in stores, and

some retailers have even offered free shipping on online purchases

. While it's obviously too early to predict whether sales will recover this year, retailers expressed cautious optimism as shoppers packed the malls.

"Based on the lines and the crowds, it feels like an excellent start to the holiday season," said Jim Fielding, president of Disney Stores Worldwide. The retailer's "Magical Friday" deals were available online starting yesterday, and shoppers at brick and mortar locations could take advantage of 20% off storewide until 10 a.m.

At the Disney Store in Braintree, Mass., shoppers eager to get their merchandise by the 10 a.m. deadline formed a line at the register that hugged the perimeter of the store. Store manager Lisa Abbate, a 20-year veteran of


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, was pleased with the volume at the location, which opened at midnight.

"The traffic is definitely up" versus last year, she said, helping a young customer reach a toy teapot. "Everybody's having a magical day."