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Online Sales Surge, but Americans Still Lining Up for Black Friday

Black Friday sales start earlier in stores and online 2:36

Throngs of shoppers gave Thanksgiving thanks for sturdy shoes, hefty overcoats and warm tents as they lined up outside stores and journeyed to malls across America to make sure they got the best deals on annual Black Friday sales.

But retailers and analysts noticed a trend as Thursday wore on: Fewer shoppers were standing in line, and more were sitting at their computers.

To be sure, the tradition of getting there early for the biggest shopping day of the year was still going strong.

"There's a TV, a 50-inch TV [for] $150. It's hard to pass up," Richard Crosby, who showed up at a Best Buy store in Albuquerque to wait at 6 p.m. Thursday, told NBC station KOB.

Image: Black Friday line in Pooler, Georgia
Shoppers line up Wednesday night in front of stores at Tanger Outlets in Pooler, Georgia, for the opening of Black Friday sales. Josh Galemore / AP

"I got here at 11 o'clock last night waiting for a TV," Michelle Toy of Oklahoma City said as shivered in the rain outside another Best Buy on Thursday afternoon.

"It's not a big price to pay. I'll have plenty of time to sleep when I'm six feet under," Toy told NBC station KFOR. "Until then, I'm going to have fun."

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But for many, shopping online was turning out to be a more comfortable alternative.

"It's too crowded," John Cappabianca of Orlando, Florida, told NBC station WESH. "You get better deals online and avoid the crowds."

In this day of instantaneous information, there was already solid evidence Thursday night to back that up.

Adobe Digital Index, which compiles real-time sales data for major retailers, reported Thursday night that through 11 a.m. ET Thursday, online sales were up 24 percent over the same 12 hours on Thanksgiving last year — with big-screen TVs, gaming consoles and computers driving the surge.

This year, "we're seeing that the best deals are only available to people who like a company on Facebook or who follow their Twitter feeds [or] become members of a loyalty program," said Mickey Mericle of Adobe.

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Channel Advisor, a retail data aggregator for some of the biggest online shops, said its clients reported that same-store online sales were up by more than 50 percent from midnight to noon — including 31 percent at Amazon.com alone.

"This data indicates that indeed consumers are aggressively shopping online this Thanksgiving," the company said. "To put this in perspective, last year we saw 19 percent [same-store sales] growth for midday Thanksgiving, and we ended Thanksgiving up 20 percent."

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Rhonda Frankel-Fein of Amherst, Massachusetts, said that was no surprise.

"Especially with online shopping, I can see how people would prefer to just get it, especially since there are many deals with no added shipping," Frankel-Fein told NBC station WWLP of Springfield. "So that makes it really worthwhile."

But old habits die slowly.

"I got my phone, I got my laptop, my tablet and, like, five blankets," Esteban Rodulfo, who showed up at a Best Buy in Fresno, California, told NBC station KSEE. "I got flannel, a jacket, another jacket right there."

At Rimrock Mall in Billings, Montana, thousands of people packed the corridors Thursday night.

"It's an economic thing," marketing manager Daron Olson told NBC station KULR. "Most retailers operate in the red until now, and now it's Black Friday."

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Hundreds of people lined nine levels of escalators Thursday at Macy's Herald Square in Manhattan to get a head start on the deals. At a Best Buy in Amherst, New York, a long line of people snaked in as police — who were there to keep the peace — looked on with little to do.

"Most of the shoppers have been through this before in previous years, so they kind of know what to expect, know how we work," manager Tim Lundberg told NBC station WGRZ of Buffalo.

And after years of practice, "we have a good system that keeps everyone safe," he said.

The National Retail Federation estimates that sales in November and December of this year to be $630.5 billion, up 3.7 percent from the last two months of the year in 2014.