Black Friday shopping, now as much a Thanksgiving tradition as turkey and cranberries, is in full swing, with sale-hungry Americans swarming into stores as retailers try to wring profits out of a still-sluggish economy.
The scramble for deals has become a bit of a blood sport, and tensions ran high in some parts. In San Antonio, one shopper pulled a gun on an impatient line-cutter who'd punched him in the face during a Thursday night opening at Sears. Scuffles broke out at two Indianapolis Kmarts, and at someone threatened to stab people in line at a Kmart in Sacramento. A 14-year-old boy was robbed of his shopping bag after leaving Bed Bath & Beyond at the Arundel Mills mall in Maryland. Shoppers stampeded a Moultrie, Ga. Walmart's smartphone sale, which was caught on video. (No one was hurt, Walmart said).
That appeared to be the worst of it, at least so far, as the vast majority of Black Friday shoppers seemed determined to avoid confrontation and focus on buying.
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Elizabeth Garcia, a mother of three from the Bronx, showed up at 3:30 a.m. at a Toys R Us in New York's Times Square that wasn't scheduled to open for another four-and-a-half hours. That was a relatively late start compared to other Black Friday shoppers, but Garcia wanted to avoid the crush that she experienced last year, when she nearly got into a fight over a Tinker Bell couch.
"This year I wasn't about to kill people," she told The Associated Press.
Still, Black Friday shopping seemed a lot like trying to survive in the wild.
"It's just that animal instinct, that hunger for sales - you are on the prowl," a shopper named Mario told NBC Washington as he waited in line Thursday night at a Target in Alexandria, Va.
Black Friday has become a crucial element of the holiday shopping season, historically the most profitable time of year for American retailers. With the economy still in the doldrums, and added competition from online sales, many stores feel added pressure to draw shoppers in earlier than in past years. Target, Toys R Us and Walmart were among the chains that opened on Thursday night. Many stores are also offering deals on layaways and shipping.
The new Thanksgiving hours have prompted scattered protests, including walkouts by Walmart employees, part of a broader union backlash against working conditions.
"Where is family values anymore?" disgruntled Walmart worker Cynthia Murray told NBC Washington. "It's no longer Black Friday, it's Black Thursday."
Walmart played down the protests, and announced that it had enjoyed its "best ever" start to Black Friday, including a Thursday night stretch from 8 p.m. to midnight in which it processed nearly 10 million register transactions, almost 5,000 items per second.
Retailers and researchers have traditionally regarded Black Friday as a way to build momentum for the following six weeks. But the event's impact seems to have diminished during the economic downturn, as Americans turned more cautious.
While consumer confidence has risen in recent weeks, spending patterns have been more modest, many economists say. Most surveys indicated that total holiday spending will rise a bit, by between 3 percent and 4 percent, in line with the previous couple years. Total sales are expected to hit about $586 billion, according to the AP.
But Black Friday promotions still succeed in getting shoppers out of the house and into stores, even if they don't plan on spending as much as they had in holiday seasons past. That was clearly evident this year, as whooping crowds pushed through doors of stores around the country.
"That's my favorite moment of the year," Lisa Stricker, a spokeswoman for Woodfield Mall in Schaumberg, Ill, told NBC Chicago. "We get people cheering, they're so excited to come in. You open the door, we hand out Santa hats, and it's the official start of the holiday season."
Outside a Best Buy near Ann Arbor, Mich, a small encampment of tents had sprung up by Thursday afternoon, as shoppers staked out a midnight opening. Nearly all had their eyes on a $179 40-inch Toshiba LCD television, the AP reported.
Jackie Berg arrived with her stepson and a friend on Wednesday afternoon, early enough - they hoped - to snag three of the TVs. She reckoned the sale price would save her more than $700 total. That was reason enough to skip Thanksgiving dinner.
"We'll miss the actual being there with family, but we'll have the rest of the weekend for that," she said.
David Diamondson brought his Thanksgiving dinner - turkey, cornbread, stuffing, potato salad - with him to eat while he waited in line at a Dallas Best Buy for the chance to score a 50-inch flat screen TV.
"I got an old fashioned TV and I want a flat screen," Diamondson told NBC Dallas/Ft. Worth.
After scarfing down his meal at home, Richard Santini dashed to Toys R Us in North Haven, Conn. and ended up second in line to buy a Wii U for his children.
"Yeah, this is my dessert after Thanksgiving," Santini told NBC Connecticut. "No pumpkin pie. I eat the turkey and come right her for dessert and burn some calories standing in line hopefully."
Nella Veis spend the pre-dawn hours Friday shopping at the Parragon Outlets in Livermore, Calif.
"Was it worth the hour drive? Was it worth the hour to find parking?" Veis said in an interview with NBC Bay Area. "Mmmmmmm, I guess so. It's Black Friday. That's what you do."
About 11,000 people joined lines wrapped around Macy's flagship store in New York's Herald Square before it opened at midnight Friday. Among them were Joan Riedewald and her four children, ages 6 to 18. By then, they'd already spent about $100 at a nearby Toys R Us, and they planned to spend another $500 at Macy's. Then they'd move on to Old Navy.
"I only shop for sales," Riedewald told the AP.
Across town, Crystal Camacho got onto line at a Manhattan Best Buy and, five hours later, walked out with 40-inch Toshiba TV for $180, NBC New York reported.
"It was crazy," she said, summing up the Black Friday spirit. "But well worth it."