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Black Friday showdown: Best Buy vs. Circuit City

It could be the LA locations I visited, but I found much longer lines at Circuit City. That doesn't mean they were doing more business though. Best Buy was much better organized.

My partner and I decided to brave the Black Friday crowds and got up at 6 a.m. to do some bargain hunting.

We planned to head to Circuit City first, given that its day-after-Thanksgiving sale had the most things we wanted. When we arrived at the suburban Los Angeles store--nearly two hours after the store had opened--there was a long line of people just waiting to get in the store.

Customers, including AJ, wait in line at Circuit City in Van Nuys. Ina Fried/CNET Networks

Figuring that the most-sought-after items were likely gone anyway and that the line might be shorter in a few hours, we headed to the nearby Best Buy in Sherman Oaks. The parking lot was certainly well filled and the store busy, but neither was overflowing. I'm sure there were plenty of people in line at 3 a.m. for the cheap flat-panel TVs and other doorbusters. But when we got there, some of the smaller items were still available and we walked out with $40 worth of stuff, including one season of the Office, the movie Borat and a Wii game that AJ wanted.

We moved on to Target, which didn't even seem busy for a weekend day. I picked up another season of the office and a couple of shirts and we made one other stop, before heading back to Circuit City. This time, we made it in without a line. Nearly the whole store, though, was filled with people waiting in line. After a quick assessment, AJ grabbed a spot in line while I picked up a few items from our list, including a 2GB flash drive for $7.99 and some West Wing and NYPD Blue seasons for around $15 apiece.

After half an hour, AJ had hardly moved forward in line. I left to get him a cup of coffee and returned 20 minutes later and he had still only inched forward in line. We tried to investigate the source of the holdup.

Whereas Best Buy had specific lines for the types of products people were buying, Circuit City had the lone checker for each line, head throughout the store to pickup big ticket items, such as a PlayStation 3 that someone ahead of us wanted. That move, along with what seemed to be the most outdated computer system I'd seen at a electronics retailer in some time, slowed things to a crawl.

The sign on the floor at Circuit City read 'wait,' and wait we did. Ina Fried/CNET

I took the time to interview a few of my comrades in line. Matt Kaplan of Sherman Oaks had just a few DVDs, but told a friend on his cell phone that at that point it had become "a matter of principle," though he told me he was probably not saving enough to justify such a long wait.

A few spots further in the line, Nestor Gomez of Van Nuys said he didn't mind such a long wait, saying the price for two Acer laptops justified the standstill.

We were finally nearing the register, so I put my notepad away. But as we were only a couple of people away from finally checking out, I noticed that some people were breezing through a nearby register. What had been assumed to be a "cash only" line was actually an available checkout spot, though the place had no means to handle a queue and was thus not advertising its services.

Checking out our dozen items took him some time, but still saved us probably another 15 minutes over the line in which we had been standing. Who knows how much more time might have been saved for all concerned with a bit more organization. What were your Black Friday experiences like?