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.
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.
But this year, stores such as Target and Toys R Us opened as early as Thanksgiving evening.
That led holiday shoppers to ask themselves a tough question: Deal with the crowds now or later?
'I only shop for sales'
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 six to 18, where 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.
Retailers are hoping that the earlier openings will help boost sales this holiday season. It is unclear how many shoppers took advantage of the earlier openings.Video: Score best Black Friday deals at Staples, Gap, more
But about 17 percent of shoppers said earlier this month that they planned to shop at stores that opened on Thanksgiving, according to an International Council of Shopping Centers-Goldman Sachs survey of 1,000 consumers.
"I think it's better earlier. People are crazier later at midnight. And I get tired at midnight," Renee Ruhl, 52, a hotel worker, said at a Target in Orlando, Fla., where she was already heading back to her car with an air hockey game loaded in her shopping cart at 9:30 p.m., 2-1/2 hours before the chain opened last year.
Overall, it is estimated that sales on Black Friday will be up 3.8 percent to $11.4 billion this year.
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.
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 earlier on Black Friday
At the Target on Elston Avenue on Chicago's Northwest side, known as one of the highest-volume Target stores in the entire chain, the $25 Dirt Devil vacuum that normally goes for $39.99 was gone, while there were still several large televisions. Items such as $2 towels were selling well, so were blankets, kids' slippers and pajamas.Video: $586 billion holiday shopping boost expected for economy
Store team leader Lee Crum said that it looked like people who were there for the 9 p.m. event were staying longer.
"These are the folks that are Christmas shopping, you can see it's a family event," he said. "At midnight it was one person, coming in for one item."
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."
Some workers were also expected to protest the expanded hours.
Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, has been one of the biggest targets of protests against holiday hours. Many of Wal-Mart's stores are open 24 hours, but the company offered early bird specials that once were reserved for Black Friday at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving instead.
The issue is part of a broader 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. The group is staging demonstrations and walkouts at hundreds of stores on Black Friday.
For their part, retailers say they are giving shoppers what they want.
Dave Tovar, a Wal-Mart spokesman, 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.
NBC's Jay Gray, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.