Last Updated Nov 28, 2014 3:26 PM EST
NEW YORK - And they're off, as shoppers around the U.S. revved their engines for Black Friday. The big question: Is the traditional annual kickoff to the holiday shopping period still the commercial extravaganza that is used to be?
Friday morning crowds appeared smaller than usual and less frenzied, in part because many Americans took advantage of stores' earlier opening hours to do their shopping on Thanksgiving Day.
That might be hard to stomach for people worried about commercial encroachment on Thanksgiving. But it is good news for bargain-hunters who hate crowds. Whether it's good news for retailers remains to be seen. Sales estimates for the start of the holiday shopping season will start trickling out later in the weekend.
"Traffic seems a little light," said Moody's analyst Michael Zucchero, speaking from a mall in northern Connecticut. "Stores being open last night takes away some of the early birds."
In a more positive sign for retailers, Toys R Us and Target executives said shoppers seem to be buying more than just the doorbusters and filling their carts with other items not on sale. That seems to show that lower gas prices and an improving job picture are making shoppers more confident about opening their wallets.
Bridget McNabb of Kansas City, Kansas, stopped at a mostly empty suburban Target around 5:30 a.m. Friday after a solid day of holiday cooking.
"I started the dishwasher and came in," she said. Her goal was a coffee pot for her niece. But first, the 55-year-old -- who said she was "old enough to know better" than to be out so early -- stopped at the electronics department. She was only momentarily disappointed after a store worker told her the $119 TV her husband wanted had sold out the night before.
"I'll pop online later," she said.
Shawna Steen, of Maplewood, Minnesota, said Black Friday is an annual outing in Fargo for her and her sisters, and this year's event was remarkably quiet.
"It's a lot different this year. We pulled up and we thought the mall wasn't even open," Steen said Friday morning while shopping at the West Acres Mall. "We're used to crowds and rushes of people right away in the morning, and it wasn't that way. Everyone must have done their shopping yesterday."
At a Walmart store near Cincinnati, Vicki Stuhlreyer of West Chester Township was on an all-night shopping marathon with her two children Brad and Madi. They had been to several stores and malls in search of bargains, and found at the Walmart what Brad wanted for his apartment -- a 55-inch TV, a Samsung on sale for $548, 30 percent off.
"It was worth it," he said of the hours of bargain-hunting.
They had breakfast at a nearby Waffle House while waiting for the 6 a.m. TV sale. Madi was still on a quest for bargains, such as for a new comforter, but hadn't been able to snag what she was looking for. They planned to take Brad and his TV home, then decide where else to hit.
"I'm more of endurance shopper," said Madi, a junior bio premed student. "I'd like to go back out again."
At the Westfield Fox Valley mall in Aurora Illinois, the mood was calm Friday morning. Parking spaces were plentiful and lines in many stores short or nonexistent. Some groggy shoppers were still in pajama pants, coffee in hand. Kimberly States, who was shopping with her 11-year-old daughter, said it was markedly more quiet around 6:30 a.m. Friday than it was the night before, when she made her first trip to the mall to pick up some holiday deals.
"It was a zoo last night around 10 p.m.," States said. "Now it seems like more of the old folks."
Mindful of how the crush can get out of control -- a Walmart worker was killed in 2008 after a stampede of shoppers -- retailers are taking extra care to keep things civil. Best Buy, for instance, has a ticketing and line process to ensure an orderly entrance into its stores. The company also says stores held training sessions to prep for this weekend's rush.
That didn't help people trying to use Best Buy's website, however. Shoppers trying to access the retailer's site Friday morning were greeted with a message that read, "We're sorry. BestBuy.com is currently unavailable. Check back soon."
The site was down for over an hour, prompting consumers to express frustration over social media, before service was restored. Best Buy attributed the outage to a "concentrated spike in mobile traffic."
At Target, deals are spread throughout 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 Walmart in a Chicago suburb where she where she was shopping on Thanksgiving.
"People were shoving each other in there," the 40-year-old said.
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. Bill Martin, co-founder of ShopperTrak, says it's still uncertain how stores will fare Friday. In a fiercely competitive retailing climate, stores have been opening earlier into Thanksgiving.
This year, retailers pushed the best deals to Thanksgiving to get shoppers first before they run out of money. That could mean bargain hunters who wanted to keep Thanksgiving sacred will feel disappointed on Friday.
With stores offering more deals earlier in the month, the holiday weekend has become less important. The growth in e-commerce means that many consumers prefer to hunt for deals on "Cyber Monday," which follows the Thanksgiving weekend.
But the period still sets the tone for the shopping season. The National Retail Federation expects holiday retail sales to rise 4.1 percent this year, to nearly $612 billion. That would be the biggest increase since 2011. Holiday sales on average have risen 2.9 percent annually over the past 10 years.
And shoppers certainly were out in full force on Thanksgiving. There were 500 people in line by the time a Target store in New York City's East Harlem neighborhood opened at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving. And 2,000 rushed in at the Toys R Us in New York City's Times Square when it opened at 5 p.m. For Macy's 6 p.m. opening, there were more than 15,000 shoppers outside its New York flagship store, a little more than last year.
Brian Cornell, who became Target's CEO in August and was at the East Harlem store on Thanksgiving, said shopping traditions have changed. "It's been more of a week event," he told The Associated Press.
After luring shoppers with big discounts on TVs, Razor scooters and other items, Target is hoping to bring them back Friday with a 10 percent discount on gift cards, the first time it has cut gift card prices.
Cornell said he was encouraged that shoppers were buying extra items like clothing and home furnishings. "The baskets are full," he added.
Hank Mullany, President of Toys R Us' U.S. business, also noted that shoppers were buying more than just the deep discounts. He noted that he was pleased with traffic Thanksgiving and the second wave of customers Friday for another set of deals. "It's more of a steady stream today," he added.