Black Friday, with its long lines, traditional pushing and shoving, and discount deals, is off and running, but seems a little less frenetic this year as many shoppers got a jump on bargain-hunting at retailers that opened Thanksgiving evening.
More than a dozen major stores from Target to Toys R Us opened on Thanksgiving Day and were staying open through Black Friday.
Macy's opened on Thanksgiving for the first time this year. Others like Gap Inc., which owns Banana Republic, Gap and Old Navy, opened some stores even earlier on Thanksgiving than last year. Many also pushed up into early November the discounting that used to be reserved for Black Friday.
Instead of a line of pent-up shoppers busting through the door at 6 a.m., a Kmart store in midtown Manhattan in New York City was already packed with people who were shopping for clothing and holiday decor items since Thanksgiving night.
In Alpharetta, Ga., at North Point Mall's food court, Jessica Astalos, 20, had been shopping for six hours when another wave of bargain-hunters descended on the mall around 5:30 a.m. Friday.
"I like being around crowds of people all doing the same thing," said Dalton Mason, 22, of Stockbridge, Ga., happily looking at discount deals.
Overall, the National Retail Federation expects retail sales to be up 3.9% to $602 billion during the last two months of the year. That's higher than last year's 3.5% growth, but below the 6% pace seen before the recession.
Still, there is plenty of jostling going on among the first wave of an estimated 147 million people who will shop during the four-day holiday weekend.
Long checkout lines formed at a Target in Colma, Calif., on Black Friday morning. And hundreds waited outside a Kohl's in American Park, Utah.
There were reports of minor brawls, including one outside a Walmart in Rialto, Calif., where a police officer was injured trying to diffuse tensions over shoppers said to be cutting in line.
Separately, the Associated Press reports that police responding to a shoplifting report at a Chicago-area Kohl's store shot the driver of a car that was dragging another officer outside. The dragged officer suffered a shoulder injury.
As usual, most of the big retail chains — Best Buy, Target, and Wal-Mart, to name a few — have increased security in place. Employees were also given crash courses in crowd control.
This year marks the five-year anniversary of a particularly notorious Black Friday: In 2008, a Wal-Mart worker was trampled to death in New York and two men died after shooting each other at a Toys R Us in Palm Desert, Calif.
"It's all about having a crowd management plan in place," said Target public relations spokesperson Jessica Stevens. This includes making sure staff members are assigned to particular areas of the store and bringing in extra security guards. Employees arrived around 7 p.m. and had a last team meeting to get prepared before the doors opened, Stevens said.
The scene was orderly in Palm Desert this year, though. The only complaints were from people who said they had to rush through their Thanksgiving dinner in order to hit the stores.
Thanksgiving Day shoppers at Wal-Mart were calmer and less frenetic than those who had stormed the retailer during past Black Friday morning sales, says Bill Simon, CEO of Wal-Mart U.S.
Business was brisk, with 10 million register transactions from 6 pm to 10 pm alone, he says.
Wal-Mart wouldn't give specifics on sales figures, but said it served more than the approximately 22 million customers who shopped on Thanksgiving Day 2012.
"The tone of the evening was much different than early Friday morning," he says. "Early Friday morning (for past Black Fridays) was more frenetic and chaotic."
Simon says the stores were filled with families on Thursday. "Having families out and children in the building gives it different feel" than on past Black Fridays, when there typically aren't kids shopping with parents.
Paul Gainer, executive vice president of Disney's retail operations, describes the mood across the stores he visited Thursday night as "calm," in large part because of the earlier store openings.
"It's just gotten spread out over some additional hours so it just felt not as compressed," Gainer says. "The mall felt very calm in comparison to many of the malls in the past couple years that were those midnight madness openings. The crowds in the stores seemed manageable. It felt busy but controlled."
Still, shoppers were out in droves Thursday night at his first stop at at a Disney store at the Brea Mall in Brea, Calif. At least 150 people were awaiting in line to enter the that holds around 100.
Richard Barry, the chief marketing officer for Toys R Us, says the retailer's 5 p.m. opening allowed families to shop together.
A line was already 500 people deep when Barry showed up at 4:15 p.m. Thursday at a Toys R Us in Times Square and may have swelled to close to 1,000 as the night went on. "The store was packed within 15 minutes of opening," Barry says. "People were in really great spirits."
Skylanders video games, the LeapPad2 Explorer kids' tablet, and a kit for making bracelets out of rubber bands that have become popular among kids this fall were some of the best-selling products. But shoppers also went for items that weren't necessarily on steep discount, he says.
While traffic eased between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m., it picked up again in the early morning when the store released a new round of deals. And Toys R Us will kick off Cyber Monday two days early with deals starting Saturday for what's become "Cyber Week."
At Washington, D.C.'s only Forever 21, about 100 customers come through the door at 8 p.m.Thanksgiving evening to grab 30% to 50% discounts on clothes throughout the store.
Ricci Conway, 19, and her friend Dakari Blunt from Maryland got up at 3 a.m to start off their Black Friday shopping at Pentagon City Mall in Arlington, Va., and slowly made their way to Forever 21 at 4:45 a.m.. "It's like a head start on Christmas shopping and a head start on winter season," said Conway.
While not Black Friday regulars, they are all about clothes shopping. Early Friday, they hit a Steve Madden store and Victoria's Secret, but found the best deal and selection at Forever 21.
"I'm very satisfied," said Blunt moving through a clothing rack full of skirts that were originally priced at $15. "Look it's only $6 now for this skirt."
In Christiana, Del, Boscov's opened from 7 p.m to midnight, generating solid sales activity but may have trimmed the Friday morning crowds, one manager said.
"It's, I believe, a little slower this year," said Donna Lentz, the assistant store manager. Opening the night before "absolutely" slowed the Friday morning rush, she said.
The night before brought in a "fair amount" of customers at Boscov's. "But not as much as in years past," she said. That's worth noting, she said, because the store was actually open longer on Thanksgiving Day in 2012.
The earlier openings and sales have met with some resistance. Some workers' rights groups had planned protests on both Thanksgiving and Black Friday because they opposed having retail employees miss family meals at home.
Some Black Friday shoppers also said they would not venture out on Thanksgiving because they believe it's a sacred holiday meant to spend with family and friends.
In Williston, Vt., Kim Kilpeck of Bolton, started her shopping day at 3:30 a.m. Friday. Three hours later she was still at Walmart buying a smart phone to replace her aging flip phone. She had an electronic tablet, sheets and other gifts in her shopping cart.
A Black Friday regular for 26 years, she and her friends used to use walkie-talkies to coordinate shopping.
Last year, she tried Thanksgiving night shopping, but didn't like it.
"It took the fun out of everything," Kilpeck said. "Let's get through Thanksgiving and enjoy Christmas for what it is."