Twice this year, Tina Rose and Jenni Murphy have set their alarm clocks on Saturdays for an hour that usually only the bleary-eyed see.
They tiptoe past their kids' bedrooms, kiss their husbands goodbye and drive together down a deserted I-85 from Concord to a darkened Charlotte Metrolina Expo Trade Center.
They are not alone for long. The fall children's consignment sale season has begun.
Within an hour of their 6 a.m. arrival at the recent Charlotte Mothers of Multiples Consignment Sale, a line of people wrapped around the building, past the closed concession stand and into the vast gravel parking lot, all waiting for the 7:30 a.m. opening. It's one of the largest events of its kind in the area.
For the bargain-conscious family, seasonal consignment sales top the list of must-attend occasions. Usually held twice a year, in the spring and in the fall, they offer the chance for thrifty shoppers to buy like-new clothing, toys and baby furniture for one-third or even one-quarter of their original prices.
"We've been planning this for some time," said Murphy, who hoped to find enough clothes for her 10-month-old son to last until the spring sale. "I stock up."
Rose planned to fill her 10-month-old daughter's closet with dozens of pretty dresses and whatever other barely used outfits she can find.
"As far as clothes, the best price and selection is here," Rose said.
A few miles away, Caroline Ferrell stood in the darkness outside University City United Methodist Church, off W.T. Harris Boulevard, handing out entrance tickets and maps to drivers who stopped in front of the church. The church's fall consignment sale would begin at 8 a.m., but people began arriving before 6 a.m. to claim one of the low- numbered admittance tickets the church doles out. The sale has become so popular that not everyone who comes can fit inside at one time.
Those waiting their turn stood outside, studying the maps that give the exact location for each treasure they sought.
"We give these to all our customers so they know where things are situated," Ferrell said. Toys for infants wait in one room. Baby transporters can be found down the hall in another.
Paula Hahn, vice president of marketing for CMOMS, understands the enormous draw of consignment sales.
"It's really amazing the things you can pick up for $2," she said. Sale organizers suggest consignors ask one-quarter or, at most, one-third of what they originally paid.
Most sales make it easy to pay for purchases, too.
"We started taking credit cards about three sales ago," Ferrell said. "We felt, in order to be more accessible, we needed to go that route, so we invested in some swipers."
When 7:30 a.m. struck at Metrolina, organizers opened the narrow glass doors to let nearly 1,000 shoppers funnel into the warehouse, where more than 200 consignors had signed off on more than 56,000 items they no longer needed.
Long racks ran in parallel aisles, holding dainty frock dresses, miniature baseball-themed onesies, even tiny baby bonnets. A table lined with an army of Dancing Elmos faced a corner stacked with enough books to assemble a small library.
Those who have shopped consignment sales before are easily recognizable by the homemade shopping carts they bring: usually a laundry basket with a rope tied to it.
The dragging sounds that dozens of baskets made as they slid across the concrete floor never ceased. For every half-dozen shoppers who parked their baskets to toss in an item or two, another half-dozen slid along, searching for the next bargain.
"This brand new would be $75," said Danny Reese, picking up a 2-foot-long fire truck with a $15 price tag. Reese and his wife, Terri, who live off Mount Holly-Huntersville Road in western Mecklenburg, shop consignment sales each fall for their grandchildren.
"We probably have $300 worth of stuff," Terri Reese said. "By the time you add it up, we'll probably get it all for $100."
The Reeses, who once bought only new clothes for their grandchildren, switched to consignment sales a few years back.
"We learned from the oldest boy. We bought new stuff; some of it he never even got to wear," Terri Reese said. "They grow so fast."
"We sold it for a couple of bucks," Danny Reese said.