Nov. 23, 2012 at 8:52 AM ET
Hordes of shoppers descended on stores across the country in the ritual known as Black Friday after many major retailers moved their openings into Thanksgiving night.
In Santa Monica, Calif., about five people were injured at an Urban Outfitters store shortly after midnight after shoppers smashed a tall glass door, the Los Angeles Times reported. In Tallahassee, Fla., police told WCTV that two people were shot outside the local Wal-Mart, but their injuries were reported to be non-life threatening.
The world's largest retailer reported its best ever Black Friday events after opening at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving. During the high-traffic period from 8 p.m. through midnight, Wal-Mart processed nearly 10 million register transactions and almost 5,000 items per second.
"The early read is Wal-Mart’s been one of the clear winners," said R. J. Hottovy, a senior retail analyst at Morningstar. The combination of expanded hours, aggressive pricing and guaranteed availability of some doorbuster deals are likely to pay off for the nation’s largest retailer."
At a Walmart in Moultrie, Ga., an online video showed a large crowd of people pushing, yelling and grabbing boxes off a shelf during a Black Friday promotion.
Walmart spokesman Randy Hargrove says a deal on a cell phone with a prepaid, unlimited usage plan "led to excitement among our customers." He called the incident unfortunate, but said it was isolated.
He says staff and security were on hand at the store to handle the situation and that no injuries were reported.
In southeast Los Angeles County, authorities arrested a small group of protesters at a Black Friday demonstration outside a Walmart store
Elizabeth Brennan of Warehouse Workers United says nine people, including three Walmart employees, were arrested shortly after noon Friday for blocking the street outside the store in Paramount, Calif.
Wal-Mart was the target of a broad campaign against the company's treatment of workers that is being waged by a union-backed group called OUR Walmart, which includes former and current workers.
Dan Schlademan, director of Making Change at Walmart, said “hundreds and hundreds” of Walmart workers either walked off the job Friday or didn’t come in for a scheduled shift.
Wal-Mart spokesman David Tovar disputed that, saying that the number of workers who missed shifts today was significantly lower than last year on Black Friday.
“We are aware of a few dozen protests at our stores today,” Tovar said, calling the activists’ claim of activity at 1,000 stores “grossly exaggerated.”
Tovar said that the discounter learned from shoppers that they want to start shopping right after Thanksgiving dinner. Then, they want to have time to go to bed before they wake up to head back out to the stores.
Still, Tovar said that Wal-Mart works to accommodate its workers' requests for different working hours. "We spent a lot of time talking to them, trying to figure out when would be the best time for our events," he said.
‘Early bird does get the worm’
The early read from retail analysts is that Friday morning traffic was steady, but less hectic than previous years. “Black Friday... kind of migrated to where much of the action was last night,” said Budd Bugatch, an analyst with Raymond James & Associates. “Associates said it was wall-to-wall people last night.”
“The early bird does get the worm here. Target is more aggressive than they were a year ago,” said Patrick McKeever, senior equity analyst at MKM Partners LLC. “Kohl’s looked good at midnight... it was just bumper-to-bumper people.”
National Retail Federation president and CEO Matthew Shay told CNBC that more than 147 million people were expected to go shopping this weekend.
“Looks like we’re off to a great start,” Shay said.
It’s likely that the combination of earlier openings and guaranteed availability of some door-busters helped space out traffic. Bugatch said a handful of stores he visited Friday morning had enough time to reorganize and tidy up their displays.
The question for stores is whether last night’s early surge will sustain its momentum through the weekend.
“I think there was probably a very modest net positive impact for brick and mortar sales versus last year, but the majority of what we’ve seen this year is just a shift,” said McKeever. “There’s less of a Black Friday frenzy today than last year. It’s becoming more like Black Thursday night... Today’s going to be a significantly quieter day.”
'I only shop for sales'
At the Mall of America, outside Minneapolis, shoppers thronged the stores to load up on goods early Friday but the situation was under control, NBC News’ Jay Gray reported.
Stores typically open in the wee hours of the morning on the day after Thanksgiving, named Black Friday because it is traditionally when they turn a profit for the year. However, these days, most retailers must be profitable year round.
But this year, stores such as Target and Toys R Us opened as early as Thanksgiving evening. About 11,000 shoppers were in lines wrapped around Macy's flagship store in New York City's Herald Square when it opened Thursday night.
Joan Riedewald, a private aide for the elderly, and her four children ages 6 to 18, were among them. By the time they showed up at the department store, Riedewalde had already spent about $100 at Toys R Us and planned to spend another $500 at Macy's before heading to Old Navy.
"I only shop for sales," she said.
A few hours later at about 3:30 a.m. ET at a nearby Toys R Us in New York's Times Square, the scene was a bit calmer.
Elizabeth Garcia, 17, a sales rep from the city's Bronx borough, was shopping for toys for her three children ages three, five and seven. She said she specifically decided on the later shopping start to avoid the crowds on Thanksgiving. She believes that was the best decision: Last year, she almost got into a fight over a Tinker Bell couch. But this year was much calmer.
"This year I wasn't about to kill people," Garcia said.
The earlier hours are an effort by stores to make shopping as convenient as possible for Americans, who they fear will not spend freely during the two-month holiday season in November and December because of economic uncertainty.
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 just about anywhere.
That has put 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.
In addition to expanding their hours, many retailers also are offering free layaways and shipping, matching the cheaper prices of online rivals and updating their mobile shopping apps with more information.
From turkey to the stores
Some holiday shoppers seemed to find stores' earlier hours appealing.
"I ate my turkey dinner and came right here," said Rasheed Ali, a 23-year-old student in New York City who bought a 50-inch Westinghouse TV for $349 and a Singer sewing machine for $50 at a Target in New York City's East Harlem neighborhood that opened at 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving. "Then I'm going home and eating more."
Not everybody was happy with Black Friday starting earlier.
Mike Labounty, 34, Lyndonville, Vt., was shopping on Thursday night for 32-inch Emerson televisions and other items on sale at the Walmart in Littleton, N.H., with his partner, Darcy Mitchell.
"I think it should go back to Friday," he said. "It breaks up families. Just look at us -- our kids are with their grandparents and they should be with us on Thanksgiving, but we're here getting them a TV."
NBC News contributor Martha C. White, Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.