By Gary Strauss, USA TODAY
With a world record $540 million (and growing) jackpot at stake, much of the nation is gripped by Mega Millions fever.
Millions of lottery tickets are being snapped up ahead of Friday night's Mega Millions drawing, which could provide a lucky ticket holder with a lump-sum payoff of about $390 million.
From Vermont to Louisiana and New York to California, the jackpot has been the wistful talk of TV, social media sites, office water coolers and dreamy high rollers for the past week, electrifying ticket sales with a frenzy likely to amp up even further ahead of Friday night's drawing at 11 p.m. ET.
PHOTOS: Mega Millions madness
The pot has grown more than $150 million since Tuesday's Mega Millions drawing failed to draw a top prize winner for the 18th consecutive time since late January.
"It's uncharted territory," says Buddy Roogow, director of the Washington D.C., lottery, which issued a commemorative "I Played The World's Largest Jackpot" ticket this week. A typical Mega Millions drawing sells 250,000 tickets in the nation's capital. "Friday, the real frenzy sets in," says Roogow, who expects ticket sales of 1 million.
Social media users were buzzing about the jackpot on Facebook and Twitter, mostly about what they would do with the money, but also about the tiny possibility of winning the top prize.
The odds? About 1 in 176 million.
"I'm reading an article about what to do after you hit the mega millions jackpot. Next article, how to housebreak your unicorn," says @scottbhuff on Twitter. Some posters link to a someecards.com poster that shows a man consoling a woman, and include this phrase: "Plenty of people don't win the lottery the first few thousand times they play."
The line to buy tickets at Bluebird Liquor in Hawthorne, Calif., stretched a half block down Hawthorne Boulevard and around a side street for another half block. Some, such as Zulodius Morgan, waited in line for three hours to purchase tickets at the store, which has a reputation for being lucky for lottery players. Morgan, who has won close to $400 from past tickets, was in line at 8:30 a.m.
Hawthorne resident Vianca Zaragoza bought tickets Wednesday with family members and was back purchasing 65 for a 10-person office pool at a local clothing company. She had already been waiting two hours. "It's a hot store, I guess," said Zaragoza, 24.
"Business is great," says Bluebird owner James Kim, working furiously behind the counter with four employees.
Near Midtown Manhattan, Crater Newsstand had sold about 1,600 lottery tickets by midday. Mohammed Manna, who manned the store register, expected even more business in the days ahead. Before Tuesday's drawing, the store sold more than 4,000 tickets.
Manhattan lottery ticket buyers tapped into various rituals and quirky procedures in hopes of building their luck. Some of the folks buying tickets at the newsstands down 1st Avenue in New York City used numbers that were printed on Chinese food fortune cookies. Others used birth dates, while some went to different retailers on the same block.
Idaho, one of 42 states to offer Mega Millions tickets, typically sells 200,000 to 250,000 tickets. "We're at 800,000 right now and expect to sell over 1 million by Friday night," says state lottery director Jeff Anderson.
Lorraine Malkmus, manager of the Maverick Country store in Meridian, Idaho, is adding additional clerks until Friday to handle demand.
"We've been jammed since Tuesday," Malkmus says. "We're selling over 2,000 tickets a day - 400 to 500 is normal. People who've never played before are coming in for tickets. People are picking up $50 worth of tickets for office pools. The Frito-Lay delivery guy bought $50 worth."
Customers at Merola's Market in Burlington, Vt., were lined up at the lottery counter eight to nine deep for much of Thursday. "It's been very, very busy," clerk Eric Foy says. "They all want their shot at ($540) million."
In Southern California's Coachella Valley, consumers are spending up to 10 times more than usual on Mega Millions tickets, says David Woosley, field consultant for several 7-Eleven stores.
"It's been outrageous," Woosley says. "Every customer coming in is buying at least eight tickets. I'm seeing people buying $50 to $100 worth rather than the $2 to $3 they usually spend."
In Minnesota, some outlets pre-printed Mega Millions tickets to speed sales. Jason Schutz of St. Cloud bought 11 tickets at a SpeedStop. "My 401(k) is worth so little. My only chance to retire is Mega Millions," he says.
David Walsh, a clerk at the Montford Convenience store in Asheville, N.C., says business is better than normal. He expects a Friday onslaught. "It's pay day," he says.
In downtown Wilmington, Del., Sam Patel, owner of the Convenient Store, says sales have been brisk, but Friday is "going to be a madhouse."
Customer George Daniels bought 10 tickets Wednesday and 10 more Thursday. If he wins, he plans to give much of it away to family and charities. "Then I'd just take life easy," Daniels says. "Everybody wants to see if they can make their dreams come true."
Greg del Rio, a supervisor at Hotel du Pont, bought 38 tickets for a workers' pool. If they win? "We'll have no more employees," he says. "Nothing will get clean."
At the Freedom Valu Center in Sioux Falls, S.D., store clerks Amber Wallenstein and Sandy Fenstermaker expect "crazy madness" Friday.
Wallenstein says many customers are forking out $5 to $10 for multiple ticket purchases. Many lottery newcomers are buying. One asked if the store sold "Mega Balls" tickets. "You would when it's up to $500 million," Wallenstein says. "You'd want to try, right?"
At Mike's convenience store in West Ocean City, Md., Lorrie Flather, snapped up six tickets. Flather, 74, won $600 and $1,300 in previous lotteries.
"They say the third time is the charm, so I'm bound to win, you know," she says.
Like other proprietors, store owner Mike Dent is bracing for long lines Friday night. He's already sold some customers $100 to $500 worth of tickets.
If Dent wins? "$540 million? I'm not coming back," he says.
Ray Springer, an unemployed Navy veteran, purchased a Mega Millions ticket and state game tickets at a southwest Atlanta Shell Food Mart.
"I normally don't play Mega Millions because those jackpots are normally not won in Georgia," he says. If he wins Friday's drawing? "I'd probably pass out," says Springer, 48.
Many ticket buyers let computers pick numbers. Others, such as retiree William Dillard, have their own system. "I play my kids' birthdays, mine, my brother's plus my mother's and father's," he says.
Hopefuls have been streaming into the Esplanade Mini Mart just outside New Orleans' French Quarter since Wednesday.
"Sales are booming," store manager David Gonzalez says. "It definitely brings people in. Everybody loves the lottery."
New Orleans resident Lisa Freeman had never bought a Mega Millions ticket before. At 7:30 a.m. Thursday, she received a text message from her twin sister in Jackson, Miss., with a list of numbers they should play. Lisa bought 12 tickets.
"It's something people here can really look forward to," Freeman says.
The Brother's Food Mart in the Lower 9th Ward also had a steady stream of Mega Millions customers - many first-time buyers, manager Ali Sylla says. When a local TV crew filmed a segment in their store Wednesday, even more came in, he says.
One of his customers was Patrice Gordon, a first-time Mega Millions buyer, who bought three tickets each for herself and her friend, Dionne Knight.
"I just bought the winning ticket and gave it to her," Gordon, 43, says, jutting her thumb at Knight. "But it's all good. She'll take care of me."
Knight, 43, says the Mega Millions jackpot has been the topic of non-stop talk at the bar she owns, The New Place. Just the prospect of the mammoth payout has been good for the city, she says, which in recent years has weathered devastating floods, oil spills and, more recently, a series of sanctions on their beloved NFL team, the New Orleans Saints.
"It's well-needed here," Knight says. "It'll be great for the city if someone here won."
Insurer Progressive is parlaying Mega Millions fever into a marketing event, says Chief Marketing Officer Jeff Charney. Progressive's TV ad icon, "The Messenger" (actor John Jenkinson) will be giving away nearly 2,000 lottery tickets on Decatur and Canal streets beginning at 9:30 a.m.
Schrader's Country Store owner and manager Kyle Schrader, 28, says ticket sales at his Fort Collins, Colo., store were strong Wednesday and getting better on Thursday. "We've been crazy busy," says owner Kyle Schrader. "Half a billion dollars? It's bringing people out of the woodwork."
"I dream of never waking up to an alarm clock again," says Jared Hersh, a packaging coordinator for New Belgium Brewing Co. Hersh, 37, bought $8 worth of tickets. "I totally dig my job, but when's that drawing? You may never see me again."
Typically, a store earns five to six cents from each ticket sold, plus a commission for selling a winning ticket. Demand for Mega Millions tickets has also boosted overall retail sales at many convenience stores.
"It's an amazing opportunity to introduce yourself to new customers," says Jeff Lenard, spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores. "For a lot of stores, this is their debutante ball."
Contributing: Laura Petrecca in New York; Rick Jervis in New Orleans, Bill Welch in Los Angeles, Larry Copeland in Atlanta; Mike Chalmers, The (Delaware) News Journal; Brian Shane, The Daily Times, Salisbury, Md.; Trevor Hughes, Fort Collins Coloradoan; Matt Sutkoski, The Burlington (Vt.) Free Press; Sherry Barkas, The Desert Sun, Palm Springs, Calif.; Amy Bowen, St. Cloud (Minn.) Times; Jonathan Ellis, (Sioux Falls, S.D.) Argus Leader.