NEW YORK (AP) – Black Friday was already well underway before many awoke this morning.
The traditional kickoff to the holiday shopping season has become a two-day affair, with more stores opening before people put down their turkey legs on Thanksgiving. There's good reason for the creep; businesses know shoppers will only spend so much, and they want the first crack at those holiday budgets.
Still, millions of Americans are expected to head out in search of steep discounts today. The National Retail Federation forecasts holiday sales will grow 4.1 percent to $616.9 billion — the biggest jump since 2011.
It's a make-or-break time for many retailers, which on average get 20 percent of their annual sales during the holiday shopping season. Already, retailers have resorted to steep discounting to lure shoppers.
Here's a look at what's happening this Black Friday.
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When stores first started opening on Thanksgiving a few years ago, the move was met with resistance by those who thought the holiday should remain sacred.
Some Thanksgiving shoppers still felt a tinge of guilt even as they snagged deals on the holiday. "I think it's ridiculous stores open on Thanksgiving," said Reggie Thomas, 44, a director who bought a Sony sound bar for $349, about $100 off, at Best Buy in New York on Thanksgiving.
Cathyliz Lopez, 20, who spent $700 at Target on Thanksgiving, agrees. "It's ruining the spirit of Thanksgiving," she said Thursday. "But ... the best deals were today."
Ferguson Protests Hit Stores
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 are expected Friday.
U.K. Gets Black Friday, Shoving Included
Americans aren't the only ones searching for deals on Black Friday; the shopping derby is becoming a tradition in the United Kingdom as well.
And just like in the U.S., businesses across the Atlantic are finding it can lead to chaos. Early Friday morning, police were called to help maintain security at some supermarkets and shopping outlets that offered deep discounts starting at midnight.
"This created situations where we had to deal with crushing, disorder and disputes between customers," said Peter Fahy, police chief for greater Manchester, where police were summoned to seven Tesco supermarkets after disturbances.
Greater Manchester Police said two arrests were made and injuries reported as police closed some stores to prevent more severe problems. One woman was injured by a falling television set.
Online retailer Amazon is believed to have introduced the concept of Black Friday to the U.K. four years ago, with more businesses joining every year since.
Back in the U.S., businesses are taking steps to keep crowds under control. Such efforts were stepped up after 2008, when a Wal-Mart worker died after a stampede of shoppers.
Best Buy, for instance, has a ticketing and line process that starts two hours before doorbusters to ensure an orderly entrance into its stores. The company also says stores held training sessions last weekend to prep for this weekend's rush.
At Target, deals are spread throughout the stores and signs direct shoppers to hot items. And the company says every store has a crowd-management captain for inside and outside the store.
That doesn't mean everyone remembers their manners.
Wendy Iscra noted it got a little competitive at Wal-Mart in a Chicago suburb where she where she was shopping Thanksgiving.
"People were shoving each other in there," the 40-year-old said.
Early Bird Special
The National Retail Federation expected 25.6 million shoppers to head to stores on Thanksgiving, which would be slightly down from last year. The numbers aren't in yet, but there were crowds across the country.
Macy's said more than 15,000 people were lined up outside its flagship location in New York City's Herald Square when the doors opened at 6 p.m. Last year, the retailer said there were 15,000 people.
In the Chicago suburb of Naperville, Illinois, the parking lot of a Wal-Mart store was full about a half hour before deals started at 6 p.m., including $199 iPad minis.
And thousands of people were at Citadel Outlets in Los Angeles, which opened at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving for a "Moonlight Madness" all-night sale. Hordes of cars inched past rows of palm trees wrapped in red and white lights.
A Visit From the Boss at Target
Target CEO Brian Cornell was at a story in New York City's East Harlem neighborhood for its opening at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving.
Cornell, who became chief executive in August, said the kickoff to the season is off to a good start based on early reads around the country.
"The baskets are full," he said as he watched shoppers filling their carts with TVs, clothing and toys. He noted people were buying more than just deals.
Cornell told The Associated Press he feels encouraged by what he has seen at stores and online. The holiday kickoff has changed, he said. "It's been more of a week event," he said.
It May Be Too Late
Those waking early for some Black Friday shopping may have missed the boat.
It turns out the hottest deals of the season may be on Thanksgiving, according to an analysis of sales data and store circulars by two research firms.
This year, Target, Macy's and Kohl's opened at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving.
Others started dishing out deals even earlier. Amazon.com and Best Buy started introducing Black Friday deals last week. On Wednesday, Target also gave early access to some of the specials reserved for the holiday shopping kickoff both in stores and online.
A New Tradition, For Workers
Wal-Mart is expected to be the target of another round of protests calling on the company to pay its workers $15 an hour. The union-backed group Our Walmart says demonstrations are planned at 1,600 stores around the country. Organizers say workers started walking off the job on Wednesday and some staged a sit-down strike at a store in Washington, D.C.
Brooke Buchanan, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman, played down the impact of the protests. She said past protests have focused on a handful of locations with a handful of workers.
"Perception is not reality in this case. We've seen this story before," she said.
Black Friday is also one of the biggest days of the year for gun sales.
That puts pressure on the system for background checks. Researchers with the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which is overseen by the FBI, have until the end of the third business day following an attempted firearm purchase to determine whether a buyer is eligible. After that, buyers have the right to get their guns even if the check wasn't completed.
Last year, the clock ran out more than 186,000 times.
The problem is the records submitted by states, which aren't always updated to reflect restraining orders or other reasons to deny a sale.
NICS did about 58,000 checks on a typical day last year. The figure surged to 145,000 on Black Friday.
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