Shoppers were back in a "Black Friday" bargain-binging mood, snapping up hoodies and computer laptops at stores, in a turnout that could give the economic recovery more steam.
In contrast to the past two years, shoppers said they were buying more for themselves and less focused only on price, while also saying the deals were not as deep as in the past.
"This is shaping up to be one of the biggest 'Black Fridays' we've seen," said David Bassuk, managing director at consulting firm AlixPartners, citing store promotions and intense advertising campaigns.
As retailers look for their best holiday season in three years, less generous deals could help them avoid steep discounts later and bode well for their margins. Lengthened hours that pushed some store openings into Thanksgiving also appeared to pay off.
Toys R Us drew in shoppers with 50 percent discounts on such toys as Buzz Lightyear and Barbies. The retailer's flagship store in Times Square drew 1,500 shoppers even at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving, company CEO Jerry Storch said.
While retail executives tend to project optimism in media appearances on "Black Friday," they still have weeks to wait for total returns from the holiday season.
Early anecdotal evidence from shoppers who lined up at stores well before dawn on Friday and from industry analysts who hopped between several malls suggested traffic was strong and the appetite to buy was up from a year ago.
Macy's Inc. CEO Terry Lundgren said the retailer had 7,000 shoppers outside its flagship Herald Square store in Manhattan at 4 a.m. on Friday, 2,000 more than last year.
"There seems to be a lot more men and a lot more younger consumers between the ages of 15 and 25," Lundgren told Reuters.
Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn said products like smartphones, e-readers, computers and mobile computing devices were selling very well. Video game systems like Microsoft Corp.'s Kinect and Sony Corp.'s Move were also "drawing a lot of interest and a lot of action," he said.
"There are customers that are grabbing multiple items for their basket. So far so good," Dunn told Reuters. "I think the consumer is going to come out this holiday season."
The crescendo follows a weeks-long push to woo shoppers. Many stores had trotted out the "Black Friday" label on sales as far back as October.
Wall Street Strategies analyst Brian Sozzi said that discounting was more in the range of 25 to 40 percent this year, compared with 30 to 50 percent last year. And shoppers sensed the change.
"I'm looking at the TV and it says save $70 and I'm like, come on, you've got to be kidding," Sanjay Patil told Reuters, as he and other shoppers waited outside a Best Buy Co Inc. store in Princeton, N.J., before midnight, even though the electronics retailer didn't open until 5 a.m.
"If it's 'Black Friday,' it has to be 100 or 120 bucks savings minimum," he said.
The National Retail Federation forecast that up to 138 million people would go to stores this weekend. The industry trade group also forecast a 2.3 percent increase in sales during November and December, up from a 0.4 percent rise a year earlier. Other forecasts call for even greater increases.
Consumer spending accounts for about 70 percent of the U.S. economy.
"Unlike last year, these people are there to buy, not browse," Sozzi said in an e-mail message.
"Where there are bargains, there are people looking to gobble them up," said Marshal Cohen, chief analyst for market research firm NPD. Though people were mostly sticking to their lists, some were picking up small extras. However, "the consumer is still very calculated."
Teen shoppers were notably out in force. Chain stores popular with that age group include Abercrombie & Fitch and American Eagle Outfitters.
"More teenagers are shopping and paying higher prices, which shows that consumers are more willing to spend their discretionary income as opposed to saving it," said Jharonne Martis-Olivo, director of consumer research, Thomson Reuters.
The earlier hours were an enticement to shoppers like Jessica Marshburn, who was armed with a Rockstar energy drink and an advertising insert from a newspaper.
"It's easier this year. I just stayed up," said Marshburn, who was at Washington Square mall in Tigard, Ore., for its midnight opening. Her game plan? Kohl's, Target, and Best Buy, as they opened. She and her friend Cristy Doering were shopping for themselves while keeping their eyes open for any deals that might make good gifts.
At the Walmart store in Columbia, Md., customers came in waves, with a big rush at midnight when toys and apparel went on sale and then another surge beginning just before the cut-rate electronics were hauled out at 5 a.m. Parking spots were in short supply and shopping carts were even more scarce, as people stalked the exits waiting for discarded ones.
The chain averted the dangers of years past by keeping its doors open all night to head off potential stampedes. While there was a steady influx of shoppers, no one dashed through aisles or shoved. Instead, they lined up for tickets entitling them to heavily discounted televisions and computers and then camped out in cordoned-off aisles.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. opened many of its stores on Thanksgiving Day and the doors stayed open overnight, a tactic it adopted after an employee was trampled to death two years ago on "Black Friday."
While the system kept things orderly, some shoppers didn't appreciate it.
Kelly Miller was looking to do some marathon gift shopping, but ended up buying just a few toys, including a game of Candyland marked down to $4.
"I might have picked up more," she said, "if I could have found what I wanted without stepping on people lying on the floor. I got fed up."
Unlike years past when people suffered injuries when rushing the entrance as stores opened, only one incident was reported by midday Friday. A military serviceman was recovering from a stab wound to the back when he attempted to stop a customer from shoplifting, according to NBC affiliate WAGT in Augusta, Ga.
Retailers are hoping to capture others' dollars online. Walmart and Target were among a gaggle of retailers that dramatically stepped up deals on their websites Thursday, hoping to lure online shoppers stuffed with turkey.
The fierce battle for shoppers' wallets promises savings for those willing and able to buy amid an economy that's still worrying many.
PayPal, the online payments unit of eBay Inc, said Thanksgiving Day payment volume rose 25 percent. It also reported a 25 percent rise in payment volume for "Black Friday" by 2 p.m. EST versus a year ago.
The good news is that retailers are heading into the season with some momentum after a solid start to November. Shoppers who can afford it are buying more nonessentials, like jewelry and luxury goods. That's helping to lift their spirits about the holiday season, which is expected to generate revenue gains modestly higher than a year ago.
"It's a dogfight between retail companies," said Chris Donnelly, a senior executive in consulting group Accenture's retail practice. "This year is the first time that there's a little more money in the marketplace so they're being more aggressive about getting the last dollar. At the end of the day, they're going to outweigh people who are pulling back."
Still, nearly 15 million are unemployed, and concerns about job security still cloud consumer confidence. Spending may be picking up but has not returned to pre-recession levels.
So, retailers are pushing deals on basics as well as offering discounts on more deluxe items, from bigger flat-panel TVs to more elaborate play sets.
Kohl's, which opened at 3 a.m. Friday, one hour earlier than a year ago, is promoting diamond bracelets and diamonds heart pendants for $99 each, down from $500 or $575. The store is also offering 50 percent off all toys.
About 200 shoppers were lined up waiting to pay for their purchases at the Toys R Us store in Lawrenceville, N.J., early Friday. Christine Barron had boxes piled over her head after shopping for her two-year-old son David.
"I wanted to be one of the first in line, but when I got here the line was already wrapped around the side of the building," Barron said.
Thanksgiving weekend is huge for retailers. In recent years, "Black Friday" has been the busiest shopping day of the year, according to data from research firm ShopperTrak. But it doesn't necessarily provide a complete forecast of holiday sales. In fact, shoppers seem to be procrastinating more every year, so the fate of the holiday season is increasingly down to the last few days.
Retailers do study buying patterns for the weekend to discern shoppers' mindset. This year, that means taking the measure on their willingness to spend just a little bit more.
Last year, the Thanksgiving shopping weekend accounted for 12.3 percent of overall holiday revenue, according to ShopperTrak. "Black Friday" made up about half of that.