Black Friday, with its long lines, traditional pushing and shoving, and discount deals, is off and running, but it 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, such as 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 New York City Kmart store in midtown Manhattan was already packed with people who were shopping for clothing and holiday décor items since Thanksgiving night.
At Renaissance at Colony Park in Ridgeland, Miss., Sandra Stephens of Baton Rouge said she didn't feel harried as she checked off her list of stops, including women's retailer Anthropologie.
"This is the first time in a few years I've gone out for Black Friday," said Stephens, who was in town visiting relatives. "It's a good feeling to get a head start on Christmas shopping, especially when it's not too crazy, like it is here."
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.
Online shopping may have also kept many shoppers at home, if the tally is any indication. Sales online sales came in at $1.06 million in the U.S., according to Adobe Systems, making it the first billion-dollar Thanksgiving online shopping day.
Still, there was plenty of jostling going on among the first wave of an estimated 140 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 defuse 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 Walmart, 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 Walmart 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 spokeswoman 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 dinners in order to hit the stores.
Thanksgiving Day shoppers at Walmart were calmer and less frenetic than those who had stormed the retailer during past Black Friday morning sales, said Bill Simon, CEO of Walmart U.S.
Business was brisk, with 10 million register transactions from 6 to 10 p.m. alone, he said.
Walmart wouldn't give specifics on sales figures but said it served more than the 22 million customers who shopped on Thanksgiving Day 2012.
"The tone of the evening was much different than early Friday morning," Simon said. "Early Friday morning (for past Black Fridays) was more frenetic and chaotic."
He said the stores were filled with families 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.
Retail analyst Marshal Cohen, of the NPD Group, also noted that the different mix of shoppers out on Thursday evening.
"In the past, few family groups would dare to venture into early-morning shopping mayhem," said Cohen of the NPD Group. "This year, however, the number of people pouring out of cars numbered four and five (sometimes more)."
But, he added, more people didn't mean more spending. "So much of that extra foot traffic was driven by tagalongs, not spenders," he said.
Paul Gainer, executive vice president of Disney's retail operations, described 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 said. "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 a Disney store at the Brea Mall in Brea, Calif. At least 150 people were awaiting in line to enter the store, which holds about 100.
In New York City, at Macy's flagship in Herald Square, a record-breaking 15,000 people were in line for store's 8 p.m. opening.
It was the first time this traditional department store, which greeted customers at midnight last year, has opened on Thanksgiving.
"I had to get out of the way," said CEO Terry Lundgren. "There was a steady stream of humanity coming through the front doors for about 12 or 13 minutes."
Over at Times Square, Richard Barry, the chief marketing officer for Toys R Us, said 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 the store and may have swelled to close to 1,000 as the night went on. "The store was packed within 15 minutes of opening," Barry said. "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 has 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 said.
While traffic eased between 3 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," Conway said.
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 deals 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 it 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 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 started her shopping day at 3:30 a.m. Friday. Three hours later, she was still at Walmart, buying a smartphone 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."
Contributing: Sydney Kashiwagi, in Washington, D.C.; Alistair Barr, in San Francisco; Terri Hallenbeck of the Burlington Free Press; Dominque Fong of The (Palm Springs) Desert Sun; William H. McMichael of The (Wilmington) News Journal; Clay Chandler of The Clarion-Ledger; The Associated Press.