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Black Friday in U.S. Isn't What It Used to Be, But Overseas ...

Other countries are adopting annual shopping event, complete with shoving and fistfights.
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Black Friday in the U.S.: like a regular weekend at the malls, only a little more so. Black Friday overseas: like Black Friday used to be in the U.S., including the shoving and fistfights.

Call it America’s latest export.

As Americans hunkered down on their couches to score Black Friday bargains online, shoppers in other parts of the world took part in what had been a uniquely American experience: Risking life and limb for dirt-cheap sweaters and discounted TVs.

British police officers were called to stores across the country on Friday to quell surging crowds and fights over deals. Retailers had adopted American-style Black Friday discounts to get a jump on the Christmas shopping season, according to Reuters. Even Brazil got in on the act, with stores offering Black Friday deals.

In the United States, stores opened early on Thanksgiving Day, some at the crack of dawn, long before the turkey was in the oven and the football games began. As "Gray Thursday" gave way to "Black Friday" consumers were already on dawn patrols for doorbusters in hopes of scoring big deals on the holiday season's hottest items, from "Frozen" dolls to smartphones to 4k TVs.

"It's a little busier than I expected to see this morning," said Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst at the NPD Group.

"It just looks like any other weekend."

Others weren't impressed by the crowds. "It just looks like any other weekend," Angela Olivera, a 32-year old housewife shopping for children's clothing at the Westfarms Mall near Hartford, Connecticut, told Reuters. "The kind of crowds we usually see are missing and this is one of the biggest malls here. I think people are just not spending a lot."

Florida mom Annie White, who hit Toys “R” Us and Wal-Mart late Thanksgiving night to buy gifts for her three kids, said she initially planned to do her shopping online, but emails from the stores lured her out. “There were some great deals they had that weren’t even on my list. I was like, ‘Oh I can’t pass that up,’” she said.

White said there was no crush of people at either of her stops. “It was like a normal day,” she said, chalking up the lack of crowds to her fellow shoppers’ researching online before getting in the car, as she had.

There were relatively few of the incidents of the past -- the tramplings, the fighting over hot items -- that have been seen in past Black Fridays, a shift analysts attributed to a burgeoning amount of online shopping, especially on mobile devices.

A survey conducted on behalf of technology company Dynatrace found that 37 percent of people who own a smartphone or tablet plan to buy more on those devices than they will in stores this year. As of noon ET on Friday, IBM reported that just over a quarter of online sales took place on mobile devices, a jump of almost 22 percent from last year.

Some retailers might have been more successful than they bargained for online. Sites including Best Buy, Cabela’s, FootLocker and JC Penney all experienced performance issues, according to Dynatrace. In a statement, a Best Buy spokeswoman blamed “a concentrated spike in mobile traffic.”

Economic uncertainy

The annual shopping migration was playing itself out in an atmosphere of economic uncertainty. While plummeting gas prices have given Americans a few extra dollars in their wallets and a psychological boost, that stroke of luck is the exception rather than the rule.

Stagnant wages for many, except for the affluent, and tepid sales earlier in the year have given rise to a wide range of predictions about the most crucial season of the year for merchants. The most optimistic were calling for a rise of about 4.1 percent -- to $611.9 billion -- versus last year's holiday season. If that comes true, it would be the biggest increase since 2011.

And with the rise of online shopping and "Christmas creep," with some retailers offering holiday discounts for over a week now, Black Friday has become less of a sprint to the door buster deals, and more of a marathon spread out over several days. Last year, sales on Black Friday slumped 13.2 percent to $9.74 billion, according to ShopperTrak, which tracks data at more than 70,000 stores globally.

“Three days of spending, consumers get a little weary,” said said Bill Martin, founder of ShopperTrak.

Martin pointed out that most of the high-profile in-store discounts had a cutoff of noon or 1 p.m. local time Friday, and that foot traffic typically is lighter in the afternoon hours of Black Friday. He said ShopperTrak has a projection of a 3.8 increase in sales for the entire holiday season over last year.

“I think it’s a little harder this year to get a read on traffic,” said Joseph Feldman, a senior managing director at Telsey Advisory Group, speaking from a Natick, Mass., Target store early Friday morning. “You can tell the stores were very full [earlier]… At the very moment I’m here, it’s very busy, but it’s not the usual frenzy you’d see on Black Friday.”

Here are some other notable aspects of Black Friday, 2014.

It’s become a target for protest

Dozens of protesters interrupted holiday shopping to speak out about a grand jury's decision not to indict the officer who fatally shot Michael Brown. Demonstrations took place at a Target and multiple Wal-Mart stores, according to Johnetta Elzie, who had been tweeting and posting videos of the protests. Protesters spent a few minutes at each store, shouting inside as law enforcement stood watch. There was no immediate word of arrests. The protests began Thanksgiving night and more happened Friday. Protesters gathered at the entrance of Macy's Herald Square in New York City, briefly stopping traffic.

Organized labor groups were capitalizing on increasing public awareness of America’s growing income inequality to once again use Black Friday to rally supporters and advocate for higher wages. Representatives of the group OUR Walmart have said protests, strikes and related activities will take place at some 1,600 of the retailer’s stores this year.

Technology is taking a bigger role

According to Georgetown University’s Institute for Consumer Research, 83 percent of shoppers will shop both online and in stores, while another 12 percent plan to only shop online. Those who will also visit stores say more than half of their shopping will take place online. “The line between online and in-store is getting blurred,” said Ishani Banerji, research director at the Institute.

A recent American Express consumer survey found similar behavior. “We’re seeing this year, more than ever, that a mobile device is central to a purchasing pattern,” particularly when comparison-shopping is involved, said David Rabkin, senior vice president of consumer products for American Express. “I don’t know if this is the year we reach the tipping point or [if] we’re beyond the tipping point… It’s clearly front and center this year.”

Fewer of us have money to burn

Retailers are more dependent on a smaller slice of the population to make their numbers. “The income distribution trends do seem to be suggesting that we’re going into a pretty different place,” Rabkin said. “That most affluent group is getting more concentrated in their spending, with fewer people accounting for more of the dollars.”

“I think all in all we’re expecting a pretty strong, pretty healthy holiday season,” said Morningstar senior retail analyst RJ Hottovy. Although consumer sentiment and wage growth have improved recently, it’s mostly been a boon for wealthier Americans. “A lot of that [is] driven by the higher middle class and upper income consumers,” Hottovy said.

Self-Gifting is hot

Stores also are counting on more people buying things for themselves, a trend that has picked up steam over the past couple of years as lower-income consumers view holiday sales as a chance to stock up for themselves. "There was definitely a good amount of self-gifting going on, or, at least, gifts for the whole family," Hottovy said. Shoppers appear today more willing to hold out until prices drop, he said. "They were probably knowing that the deals were coming around."This year, Georgetown's research found that 37 percent of purchases are people buying for themselves, a jump of eight percentage points in a year

-- Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.