NEW YORK – Black Friday used to kick off the holiday shopping season, but now Thanksgiving Day is the new tradition for some shoppers.
Macy's officials said about 15,000 people were at the 6 p.m. opening at its flagship store in Manhattan. An hour and a half before the Toys R Us in New York's Times Square opened at 5 p.m., about 40 people stood in line.
And at the 24-hour Wal-Mart store in Naperville, Illinois, the aisles were clogged with people and carts by 6 p.m., when employees began pulling shrink wrap off palettes of merchandise to mark the official start of Black Friday deals.
Outside, the scene was much the same. With the parking lot filled to capacity, drivers circled slowly looking for spaces, causing a backup of traffic trying to pull into the lot. Some gave up and parked in the near-empty lot of a fitness center and a Starbucks across the street.
"It's the worst wonderful time of the year!" an employee laughed as he collected shopping carts.
Shopper Julie Desireau snagged a $10 crockpot and the last $10 deep fryer and promptly hid them under a rack of women's flannel pajamas. Then the 29-year-old from Chicago called her husband, who was in the toy department with their cart, and told him to come pick her up.
"There's no way I'm going back there," she said.
After opening earlier and earlier on the holiday, this year, most of the more than dozen major retailers like Macy's, Target and Kohl's opened around the same time they did last year -- about 5 p.m. or 6 p.m.
One big exception: J.C. Penney, which opened two hours earlier at 3 p.m. on the holiday. Staples has reversed course and will close on the holiday. Sporting goods chain REI, which was always closed on Thanksgiving, is bowing out of Black Friday altogether and is asking employees and customers to spend time outdoors and not go shopping.
Still, stores aren't waiting around to push discounts on holiday goods until the official weekend. Increasingly, they've been discounting holiday merchandise earlier in the month. In fact, according to the National Retail Federation, the nation's largest retail trade group, nearly 60 percent of holiday shoppers have already started holiday shopping as of Nov. 10.
That should take a bite out of the sales this weekend, though Black Friday should still rank as either number one or two in sales for the year.
Overall, the National Retail Federation estimates that about 135.8 million consumers will be shopping this weekend, compared with 133.7 million last year. The trade group expects about 30 million will be shopping on Thanksgiving, compared with 99.7 million on Black Friday.
The group also expects a 3.7 percent increase in sales this year to $630.5 billion for the season. But grabbing those dollars will be tough.
While the economy has been improving, shoppers remain tight-fisted. Unemployment has settled at a 5 percent rate, but shoppers still grapple with stagnant wages that are not keeping pace with rising daily costs like rent. Stores also are contending with an increasing shift to researching and buying online.
In response, Wal-Mart and Target made all deals available later in the stores online Thanksgiving morning. New this year at Target: shoppers who spend $75 or more on Friday will receive a 20 percent discount to use toward a future purchase on any day between Dec. 4 and Dec. 13.
Target CEO Brian Cornell told reporters on a conference call Thursday night that early results show that the discount chain is seeing higher traffic at its stores than last year and shoppers are buying items across the store, from clothing to electronics to toys. He also said that he has been pleased with strong results in online sales. Among some of the most popular doorbuster deals is a Westinghouse TV, marked down to $249.99, a savings of $350, he said. Target also offered 40 percent off of all fashion and accessories.
"This is the start of a really good shopping season," he said.
Some shoppers came out for the first time on the holiday. Maria Garcia-Chavez, who lives in Denver, stood in line in the snow with her husband and four children to get into J.C. Penney. She came looking for women's boots, on sale for $19.99
"This is my first time shopping on Thanksgiving. I want the deals," she said. "You have to come the first day. If we come back tomorrow, you can maybe get the same price -- if you're here at 6 a.m. I'm not going to get up that early. I'd rather sleep."
But not everyone is impressed with the Thanksgiving lines. By about an hour before Toys R Us in Times Square opened the line swelled to over 100.
"Black Friday isn't what it used to be," said Keith Nelson, 54, who works in security in the Brooklyn and was third in line after arriving about 2:15. "Lines used to be longer, people would be sleeping and bringing lounge chairs out here."
Lisa Gutierrez of Aurora, Illinois, thought her strategy of waiting to go shopping until after kickoff of Thursday night's NFL game between the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers was a good one. Until she arrived at the Target near her home and found out the flat screen TVs she had her eye on were sold out almost immediately after the store opened at 6 p.m.
"That's a bummer," she said. On the bright side, "at least it's not a total madhouse in here."
The Naperville, Illinois, Target was busy but calm about two hours after opening. Most but not all checkout lanes were open and lines were short. Parking was readily available.