Some stores had crowds rushing in when they opened their doors at midnight -- several hours earlier than they normally do on the most anticipated shopping day of the year. A few that opened on Thanksgiving Day even were filled with shoppers.
The openings were mostly peaceful, but authorities say 20 people at a Walmart store in Los Angeles suffered minor injuries when a shopper used pepper spray during a confrontation shortly after the store opened on Thursday evening. In Fayetteville, N.C., police are looking for two suspects after gunfire erupted early Friday at Cross Creek Mall. Adding to that, there are planned protests in places like Chicago and Washington, D.C. to get people to reconsider shopping at national chains on Black Friday.
Elsewhere, about 600 shoppers were in line at a Target store in Brooklyn in New York when it opened at midnight. By the time it opened at midnight, nearly 2,000 shoppers wrapped around a Best Buy store in St. Petersburg, Fla. And more than 9,000 people were outside the flagship Macy's store in New York's Herald Square at its midnight opening.
"I came here for the deals," said Sidiki Traore, 59, from Roosevelt Island, N.Y. who bought three shirts for $50 at the Macy's. He also went to Toys R Us for its 9 p.m. opening on Thanksgiving and bought three toys for $106 for his four-year-old son.
A record number of shoppers could head to stores across the country to take advantage of deals of up to 70 percent during the kickoff to the holiday shopping weekend. For three days starting on Black Friday, 152 million people are expected shop, up about 10 percent from last year, according to the National Retail Federation. That's good news for retailers, many of which depend on the busy holiday shopping season for up to 40 percent of their annual revenue.
"It's the literal, physical and emotional start to a very big period for us," said Mike Vitelli, Best Buy's president.
To draw in crowds, merchants pulled out of their bag of tricks. Some began offering to match the prices of competitors and rolling out layaway programs. Others like Best Buy, Abercrombie & Fitch, Target and Kohl's opened at midnight. The Gap and Toys R Us even opened stores on Thanksgiving.
"It's a good move to try to get shoppers to spend sooner, before they run out of money," says Burt Flickinger, III, president of retail consultancy Strategic Resource Group.
The early store openings caused some backlash. Some employees at stores that were planning to open early signed online protests to get retailers to change their minds. Some shoppers also signed the online petition.
Still, about 34 percent of consumers plan to shop on Black Friday, up from 31 percent last year, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. And more people already are shopping online. By midday on Thanksgiving, online sales were 20 percent over results from the same period a year ago, according to data from IBM Coremetrics.
Black Friday shoppers say they were lured by the deals.
The Gap, for instance, is offering discounts of 20 to 60 percent on many items. Old Navy has pea coats for $29 and jeans for $15. Toys R Us is selling a Transformers Ultimate Optimus Prime action figure for $30 off at $47.99 and a Power Wheels Barbie vehicle for $120 off at $199.99. And Best Buy has a $400 Asus Transformer 10-inch tablet computer for $249.99.
Tammie Wills and her friend were up all night, starting out their Black Friday shopping at Toys "R" Us in Cary, N.C. around 9 p.m., then hitting Wal-Mart and Target before returning to Toys "R" Us for a second time. They were looking for the LeapFrog LeapPad, but it was sold out everywhere.
"It's tiring but you save a lot of money," said Wills, a stay-at-home mom
Nadia Mitchell, 33, a school teacher from Brooklyn for the past 10 years, stood in line at Target for four hours watching Netflix comedies on her smartphone to pass the time ahead of the store's midnight opening. She was looking for deals on cameras, a vacuum, an ice maker and a new TV for her bedroom.
"It's the cheapest time to buy stuff," she says. She goes to buy electronics and appliances.
After showing up at Best Buy in New York on Wednesday at 3 p.m., Emmanuel Merced, 27, and his brother were the first in line when it opened. On their list was a Sharp 42-inch TV for $199, a PlayStation 3 console with games for $199.99 and wireless headphones for $30. Merced says he likes camping out for Black Friday and he figures he saved 50 percent.
"I like the experience of it," says Merced, who plans to spend $3,000 to $4,000 on gifts this season.
To be sure, not every store was bustling on Black Friday. At a Target on Chicago's north side, crowds were light four hours after the store opened. And door-buster deals, including the typically quick-to-sell out TVs and gaming systems, remained piled up in their boxes. Shoppers pushed carts through mostly empty aisles while thumbing through circulars and employees - some in Santa hats - roamed the store. There was no Christmas music -- or any music -- playing.
Rebecca Carter, a graduate assistant, began Black Friday shopping at 11 p.m. on Thursday night and left Target around 4 a.m. carrying a bag full of pillows. Carter, who prowls Black Friday deals every year, said crowds were noticeably lighter this year as she and a friend picked up a television set ($180 for a 32-inch TV) and a laptop for $198, along with toys and pajamas.
"It's quiet," she says. "There were all these televisions still there. It was shocking."