Stores typically open in the wee hours of the morning on the day after Thanksgiving that's named Black Friday because of retail folklore that it's when merchants turn a profit for the year. But after testing how shoppers would respond to earlier hours last year, stores such as Target and Toys R Us this year opened as early as Thanksgiving evening. That created two separate waves of shoppers.
Lori Chandler, 54, and her husband, Sam, 55, were a part of the early group. By the time they reached the Wal-Mart in Greenville, S.C. early Friday, they had already hit several stores, including Target and Best Buy. In fact, they had been shopping since midnight.
"It's a tradition," Lori said as she looked at some toys she bought for her four grandchildren. Sam, smiling, agreed: "We've learned over the years, you have to stand in line early and pray."
Elizabeth Garcia, a sales rep from the Bronx borough of New York City, decided on a later shopping start at about 3:30 a.m. at Toys R Us in New York's Times Square. As a result Garcia, who has three children ages three, five and seven, believes she missed some of the lines on Thanksgiving when the store opened at 8 p.m. That's good news since the crowds got to her last year, and she Garcia almost got into a fight over a Tinker Bell couch.
"This year I wasn't about to kill people," she said.
The earlier hours are an effort by stores to make shopping as convenient as possible for Americans, who they fear won't spend freely during the two-month holiday season in November and December because of economic uncertainty. Many shoppers are worried about high unemployment and a package of tax increases and spending cuts known as the "fiscal cliff" that will take effect in January unless Congress passes a budget deal by then.
At the same time, Americans have grown more comfortable shopping on websites that offer cheap prices and the convenience of being able to buy something from smartphones, laptops and tablet computers from just about anywhere. That puts added pressure on brick-and-mortar stores, which can make up to 40 percent of their annual revenue during the holiday shopping season, to give consumers a compelling reason to leave their homes.
That's becoming more difficult: the National Retail Federation, an industry trade group, estimates that overall sales in November and December will rise 4.1 percent this year to $586.1 billion, or about flat with last year's growth. But the online part of that is expected to rise 15 percent to $68.4 billion, according to Forrester Research.
As a result, brick-and-mortar retailers have been trying everything they can to lure consumers into stores. Some stores tested the earlier hours last year, but this year more retailers opened their doors late on Thanksgiving or at midnight on Black Friday. In addition to expanding their hours, many also are offering free layaways and shipping, matching the cheaper prices of online rivals and updating their mobile shopping apps with more information.
"Every retailer wants to beat everyone else," said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, a research firm based in Charleston, S.C. "Shoppers love it."
Indeed, some holiday shoppers seemed to find stores' earlier hours appealing. Julie Hansen, a spokeswoman at Mall of America in Minneapolis, said 30,000 people showed up for the mall's midnight opening, compared with 20,000 last year. She noted that shoppers are coming in waves, and sales aren't just being shifted around.
"This is additional dollars," Hansen said.
Hansen said stores that didn't participate in the midnight opening last year learned a lesson. Last year, 100 of the 520 Mall of America tenants opened their doors at midnight. This year, that figure doubled.
About 11,000 shoppers were in lines wrapped around Macy's flagship store in New York City's Herald Square when it opened at midnight on Black Friday. That's up from an estimated 9,000 to 10,000 shoppers who showed up the store's midnight opening last year.
Joan Riedewald, a private aide for the elderly, and her four children ages six to 18, were among them. By that time, she already had spent about $100 at Toys R Us, which opened at 8 p.m., and planned to spend another $500 at Macy's before heading to Old Navy.
"I only shop for sales," she said.
By the afternoon on Thanksgiving, there were 11 shoppers in a four-tent encampment outside a Best Buy store near Ann Arbor, Mich., that opened at midnight. The purpose of their wait? A $179 40-inch Toshiba LCD television is worth missing Thanksgiving dinner at home.
Jackie Berg, 26, of Ann Arbor, arrived first with her stepson and a friend Wednesday afternoon, seeking three of the televisions. The deal makes the TVs $240 less than their normal price, so Berg says that she'll save more than $700.
"We'll miss the actual being there with family, but we'll have the rest of the weekend for that," she said.
But some shoppers decided to stick to traditional Black Friday shopping hours. At a Kohl's store in Milwaukee, which opened at midnight, Lavette Roberts scoured the shelves for clothes her son could take back to college next week.
A Black Friday veteran who has participated for the past seven years, the 45-year-old welder said she was on a strict $500 budget, and she wanted to come out early on Black Friday to get the best deals.
"My husband doesn't play. If I spend $501, he'll make me come back," she joked.
Nicole Page of Bristol, Conn., shopped with her sister at a Wal-Mart in Manchester, Conn., at about 4:45 a.m. on Black Friday. Page, who recently finished school and started working as a nurse, bought an electric fireplace for $200 that she said was originally $600. Her shopping cart also had candy canes, a nail clipper for her dog and other stocking stuffers.
Page said she and her sister stuck with the Black Friday tradition; They've shopped in the early morning of Black Friday in previous years.
"We try to make a tradition of it. It's kind of exciting," she said.
Mae Anderson and Anne D'Innocenzio reported from New York. Mitch Weiss contributed from Greenville, S.C. Stephen Singer contributed from Connecticut. Dinesh Ramde in Milwaukee. Tom Krisher contributed to this report from Ann Arbor, Mich., and Toledo, Ohio.