Shoppers turned out in droves at malls and big-box stores around the country to take advantage of Black Friday deals, as retailers opened their doors earlier than ever on Thanksgiving.
According to early estimates, the late evening openings are paying off.
"Like pumpkin pie and football, Thanksgiving Day shopping is quickly becoming a holiday tradition for millions of Americans," said National Retail Federation President and CEO Matthew Shay. "Steady streams of shoppers have already flooded outlets, malls and other stores throughout the country and shopped online from the convenience of their couch to kick off the holiday season."
Toys 'R Us, Walmart and Sears all got a head start on the big shopping weekend by opening at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. That's even earlier than last year, when the toy retailer kicked things off at 9 p.m. and Walmart, the world's largest retailer, opened at 10 p.m. Sears opened at 4 a.m. last year.
"By opening even earlier, the retailers have been able to attract a broader spectrum of consumers to participate in Black Friday -- not everyone is willing to wake up at 4 a.m.," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at the NPD Group. "They definitely got a lot more business early and upfront."
As a result of the early surge in shoppers, Cohen expects total Black Friday sales to be up between 2% and 3% from last year.
But by Sunday morning, Cohen anticipates that shopper traffic will fall back to levels typically seen during an October weekend. "There are more hours to shop, but consumers don't have more relatives or more money in their pocket, so once all the dust settles, we won't see too much growth overall," he said.
For the entire holiday season, Cohen expects sales will rise between 1% and 2%.
NRF, on the other hand, is more optimistic. It estimates that holiday sales will increase by 4.1%.
Black Friday traditionally marks the start of the holiday shopping season. Stores consider it to be the most important time of the year because they can make up to 40% of their annual sales in the November-December period.
Retailers encouraged by early traffic. Malls were seeing more shoppers than ever before, said Les Morris, spokesman for Simon Property Group, which operates 160 malls throughout the country.
The parking lot at Simon's Cincinnati Premium Outlets in Monroe, Ohio, was full by 10 p.m. Thursday. Meanwhile, store managers at its Jersey Shore Premium Outlets in Tinton Falls, N.J., an area hit hard by Superstorm Sandy, were pleased with the strong traffic, which caused a three-mile backup on the Garden State Parkway.
La Plaza Mall in McAllen, Texas, had to use its off-duty police officers and security to control traffic outside of stores.
"Many stores including Abercrombie & Fitch had to close their store entrances temporarily as they had reached capacity with hundreds of shoppers waiting to enter the stores," said Isabel Rodriguez-Vera, area director of marketing.
The crowd at the Toys 'R Us in New York's Times Square started gathering about four hours ahead of its open, said CEO Jerry Storch.
Shoppers were excited for the more than 200 doorbusters and other deals, particularly on items like the Nintendo WiiU and a "buy one, get one for $1" deal on video games. But many had to rearrange their Thanksgiving dinner plans in order to take advantage of them.
New York City resident Shay Brown, 25, who spent Thanksgiving with relatives in Pittsburgh, headed to the Walmart in Robinson Township for Black Friday shopping with her family, but wasn't thrilled about the early opening time.
"We could have been sitting around enjoying each others' company, but instead we had to rush here to get the deals," said Shay, who was shopping for DVDs.
Fellow Walmart shopper Vanessa Moore, 36, however, welcomed the 8 p.m. opening.
"I actually like that they're doing it on Thursday, because after you're done eating, there's really nothing to do," said the Steubenville, Ohio, resident.
As shoppers stormed the shelves at Walmart stores nationwide, hundreds of people outside -- including some employees -- took part in Black Friday protests. They claim the retailer retaliates against those who speak out for better pay, fair schedules and affordable health care.
According to organizers from the union-backed group OUR Walmart, hundreds of workers and thousands of supporters rallied in Landover Hills, Md.; Miami; Oakland, Calif.; Chicago; Danville, Ky.; Dallas; and Kenosha, Wis. The organizers say the protests will continue throughout the day.
But Walmart said the disruptions were minimal.
"We had very safe and successful Black Friday events at our stores across the country," said Walmart CEO Bill Simon in a statement. "Only 26 protests occurred at stores last night, and many of them did not include any Wal-Mart associates."
Simon added that less than 50 Walmart workers participated in the protests nationwide, and roughly the same number of associates missed their scheduled shift as last year. The company said it did not experience any walk-offs.