updated 11/25/2010 10:38:48 PM ET 2010-11-26T03:38:48

Not all Americans tucked into turkey with their families on Thanksgiving. Some were out shopping, hitting sales ahead of the crowds expected Friday.

After a year of cautious spending and worry over an uncertain economy and high unemployment, more stores this year extended hours into Thanksgiving Day, a day when stores are traditionally closed.

Many grumble about the relentless march of commercialism creeping into the holiday. But at least some shoppers took the bait.

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While crowds appeared relatively light compared with the weekend ahead, the extended hours drew in overseas visitors, those who have to work Friday and some who couldn't resist a good deal.

Sears, Kmart and some Sports Authority, Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic stores were among those open Thursday.

At an Old Navy in Lutherville, Md., Brenda Tarver, 65, a retired postal employee from Baltimore, was dragged out of the house by her daughters, but was finding good deals on clothing.

"They've got good prices and a variety of items. A lot of things are 50 percent off," she said.

Willy Gerelbest, 45, a counselor from Brooklyn, was shopping at Kmart in New York for sneakers on sale for $9.99.

"I saw the advertising and just wanted to check it out," he said. "Tomorrow I have to work."

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David Friedman, president of marketing for Sears Holdings Corp. said the decision to open 7 a.m.-noon on Thanksgiving Day stemmed from positive response to a similar "early Black Friday" sale in November, as well as success with Kmart, which Sears also owns and has been open on Thanksgiving for 19 years.

Workers will earn holiday pay and still be home in time for a Thanksgiving meal, Friedman said.

At the Sears store at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., the largest U.S. shopping and entertainment complex, sales were fueled by a charity walk at the mall.

The walk — and a good sale — drew Helen Schultz, of White Bear Lake, Minn. She bought a 19-inch RCA LCD HDTV for $129.99, saving $70. But she said wouldn't have bought it Thursday if she hadn't been there for the charity walk.

"I don't think shopping should be done on Thanksgiving," Schultz said. "But they need to make money."

Video: The key to Black Friday bargains? Your Blackberry (on this page)

Toys R Us CEO Jerry Storch said the company decided to open at 10 p.m. Thanksgiving Day because reaction was so positive to the stores' midnight opening last year. Before that, stores opened at 5 a.m. on Friday. He expects brisk sales of hot toys like Santa-ma-jig, a green and red singing doll.

"Customers lined up at 8 p.m. on last year. They wanted us to open earlier," he said.

A similar promotional blitz greeted online shoppers Thursday, though the holiday isn't a bonanza there, either.

Last year, consumers spent about $300 million online on Thanksgiving, compared with $887 million on Cyber Monday, according to comScore.

According to Akamai Technologies, which tracks traffic to 270 retail sites, traffic peaked at 11 a.m. and was up about 14 percent from Wednesday.

John Thompson, senior vice president and general manager of Best Buy Inc.'s website, said this year the company reached out to its frequent online shoppers and gave them early access to deals.

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"Thanksgiving Day is a day when we are seeing more and more consumers choose online as a place to begin their research and actually transact," he said.

With nearly 15 million unemployed in the U.S., some store workers were grateful for the holiday pay or extra time off that comes with working on a holiday.

Bryce Humerick, 21, of Towson, Md., a sales associate at the Old Navy store in Lutherville, said he was happy to be making time-and-a-half.

"I don't mind," he said. "My Thanksgiving dinner isn't until later."

Not everyone was so pleased.

In the hardware department of the Mall of America's Sears, John McDonough had volunteered to work, but he bemoaned the increasing commercialization of the holiday season in general.

"It's a crying shame," he said. "What has corporate America done to us?"

___

Sarah Brumfield in Lutherville, Md., and Steve Karnowski in Bloomington, Minn., contributed to this report.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Black Thursday begins

  1. Transcript of: Black Thursday begins

    CARL QUINTANILLA, anchor: While most people were sitting down for a Thanksgiving feast with family and friends today, some were out at the mall -- yes, shopping, getting a jump on Black Friday on Thanksgiving Thursday. NBC 's Lee Cowan reports on what could become a brand-new tradition for shoppers and some of the nation's biggest retailers. Lee , good evening.

    LEE COWAN reporting: Hey, Carl . Yeah, it's been a trend over the last several years that as you sort of push away from the turkey at the dinner table, you pull up to your keyboard and you start your holiday shopping online . Well, that's a group of shoppers that retailers really want to take advantage of. So opening up on the holiday itself gives them a chance to get a piece of that economic pie. The nation's economy has been working overtime all year to keep the recovery moving. And yet that hasn't earned it a single day off. Retailers expected consumers to clock back in on this holiday , and they're reporting for duty, sort of.

    Unidentified Woman #1: Why aren't you on the couch right now?

    Unidentified Man #1: Well, we got -- I got drug out of the house.

    COWAN: He's not alone. This was the Thanksgiving line outside a Kmart before dawn this morning, customers waiting to feast on deals they used to have to wait for. For many it was a chance to beat the rush. After all, Black Friday gives some shoppers worse indigestion than stuffing themselves with family and friends.

    Unidentified Woman #2: The crowds on Black Friday , it's crazy. Everybody's nuts.

    COWAN: It's all about market share. Last Thanksgiving $318 million were spent online. For brick-and-mortar stores, those are customers who are gravy on a holiday bottom line that's already expected to rise by around 2 percent this year.

    Ms. DANA TELSEY (Retail Analyst): It pays for the stores to open. The traffic's there and they can get them in the stores rather than selling them on the Internet .

    COWAN: She says stretching out the tone-setting weekend for the holiday shopping season is a good start, but it's not everything.

    Ms. TELSEY: Really, it's December 15th through the 25th, that's the make-it-or-break-it time.

    COWAN: For Sears , one of the nation's oldest retailers, opening on Thanksgiving Day is a real break with tradition.

    Unidentified Man #2: The first time in over a hundred years that we did it. So a lot of customers are excited about it.

    COWAN: And some are lamenting the loss of the holiday that used to be.

    Unidentified Woman #3: Employees should have the day off like everybody else. Unless you're a nurse or a doctor, what's the point? You have plenty of other days to shop.

    COWAN: The point is that Thursday may be the new black, a light version of what's expected to happen tomorrow. Now, Carl , retailers like Toys " R " Us, for example, they're going to be opening at 10:00 tonight. Walmart is going to be opening at midnight. And then a whole host of other stores like Kmart here is going to be opening in the wee hours of the morning, so that holiday shopping tradition, it seems like, is just getting earlier and earlier. Carl :

    QUINTANILLA: Well, if they're working and you're working and I'm working, Lee , working on Thanksgiving really is the new black . Lee Cowan in Los Angeles . Thanks

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