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Not the Black Friday retailers were hoping for

Shoppers turned out in droves to capitalize on retailers' doorbuster deals on Thanksgiving evening and into Black Friday, but will it be enough?

After a sluggish start to the holiday shopping season, millions of Americans finished their turkey dinners and headed out to malls and shopping centers around the U.S., with lines forming outside Best Buy, Target, Wal-Mart and Toys R Us before the doors opened.

Still, with many of retailers' promotions kicking off before Thanksgiving or online, the frenzy of years' past was noticeably more tame.

Deloitte's Kate Ferrara, who arrived at South Shore Plaza in Braintree, Massachusetts, at 6 a.m., said people were shopping, but overall, it was pretty calm. In general, she said the department stores — which opened ahead of the smaller tenants — tended to be the busiest. The sales staff at some of the specialty stores, by comparison, looked a little tired, she said.

Shoppers purchase electronics and other items at a Best Buy on November 26, 2015, in San Diego, California.
Getty Images
Shoppers purchase electronics and other items at a Best Buy on November 26, 2015, in San Diego, California.

Ferrara added that many of the shoppers were teenagers who were milling around the mall and didn't appear to be making purchases.

"I don't think this is the target shopper that everybody's looking for today," she said.

Steve Barr, with PricewaterhouseCoopers, said early indications are that in-store sales will be flat, with the big winners being online stores and shoppers. He questioned how stores that are offering 50 to 70 percent off this early in the season will be able to survive long term.

"My concern would be for the long-term benefit of the retailers this just hasn't been the holiday shopping weekend that they were hoping for," he said.

Where the crowds were

Toys R Us CEO Dave Brandon said the company "got off to a good start last night," and its Times Square flagship had "lines of people down the street when we opened the doors at 5 o'clock."

Target on Friday morning said traffic in its stores was "solid" on Thanksgiving, with millions of shoppers filtering into its stores throughout the evening. Online, it achieved its biggest day ever for digital sales.

Wal-Mart said "tens of millions of customers" visited its digital and physical stores, adding that more than 25 million shoppers accessed its store maps and digital ads in preparation for the event.

Steve Bratspies, chief merchandising officer for Walmart U.S., said customers "really appreciated" the fact that it simplified its deals this year, launching all of its doorbusters at 6 p.m. instead of staggering them across the evening.

After the initial flood of traffic, Bratspies said, stores had a "steady" flow of traffic overnight, and is expecting another big day.

"In general, the biggest things obviously go relatively quickly," Bratspies said, listing a 32-inch Roku TV, gaming systems, toys and sheets as some of its best-sellers.

And Macy's estimates at least 15,000 people were waiting outside its flagship Herald Square store ahead of its 6 p.m. Thanksgiving opening, roughly in line with last year.

"Last night was clearly the kickoff to Thanksgiving shopping and we saw it, not just with the lines, but with purchasing," CEO Terry Lundgren said. "We were very encouraged that people finally not only came out, but came out and bought."

Moody's analyst Charlie O'Shea said he saw big crowds at the New Jersey Best Buy and Target stores he visited. As of 10 a.m. Thursday, there were already 20 chairs outside of Best Buy, O'Shea said; once the deals kicked off, people were snatching up multiple TVs.

O'Shea even saw one shopper, who had already picked up three flatscreen TVs, loading a fourth onto a flatbed.

Moody's analyst Scott Tuhy said one of the busiest parts of the J.C. Penney and Macy's stores he visited were the buy online, pick up in-store counter. That's a positive for retailers, since it saves them on shipping costs and encourages shoppers to pick up additional purchases while they're in store.

But while the shopping extravaganza appeared to get off to what O'Shea called a "reasonable" start, it remains to be seen if an uptick in sales over the four-day Black Friday shopping period will be enough to boost retailers out of their lull.

"It's a long season," he said. "There's a lot of innings left to play in this game."

A slow start to holiday

Despite the fact that many stores pushed their promotions earlier into the season, shoppers didn't take the bait. According to data from NPD Group and CivicScience, 57 percent of consumers hadn't even started their holiday shopping as of Sunday.

Even as stores ramped up their early Black Friday deals, only 6 percent more consumers started shopping compared with the prior week, according to NPD's Marshal Cohen.

"It's been very promotional early in the cycle here," Brandon said.

Earlier this week, Wolfe Research analyst Adrienne Yih Tennant told investors that the stretching out of Black Friday has turned what was previously one of the most profitable selling days of the year into a loss leader.

"Stores now open Thanksgiving Day and stay open all night. But all this seems for naught, as sales just seem to get shifted from one day to the next and from brick-and-mortar to online, and all the extra expense and effort is not materializing in greater sales," she said.

Investors were already cautious about their expectations for this holiday season, as third-quarter revenues have risen just 2.3 percent, according to Retail Metrics. What's more, "Forward guidance has been very cautious and predominantly negative," the firm's president, Ken Perkins, said.

Perkins noted that during the short week, GameStop, Tiffany, Burlington, DollarTree, Fred's, Signet and Calares — which represent a "broad swath" of the retail industry — all projected either their fourth-quarter or full-year earnings below consensus forecasts.

Ron Antonelli | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Even online sales growth, while still outpacing that of overall retail, got off to a slow start and is expected to decelerate this season. Data from Adobe show that between Nov. 1 and 24, digital sales increased 8.5 percent compared with last year — shy of 11 percent increase that's anticipated for the whole season. That compares with 12 percent growth last November and December.

And while Thanksgiving Day sales exceeded expectations, early Black Friday revenues fell short of estimates, according to Adobe.

Online-only retailers Amazon and eBay were dominating the conversation on Twitter on Friday morning, each receiving more than 2,000 mentions in the three hours ended 8 a.m.

Regardless, as more customer traffic shifts to the Web, analysts emphasized that it's important not to read too much into retailers' Black Friday mall traffic.

"It is becoming increasingly difficult to use stores as a barometer for success as more business shifts online, particularly during the high-traffic periods," Citi analyst Paul Lejuez told investors.

Keeping shoppers safe

Many Americans were on edge following the recent Paris terror attacks, and the State Department's warning that Americans should avoid crowded places. Mall operators across the U.S. responded by running drills to test their procedures, and by reassuring shoppers that they work closely with law enforcement 365 days a year.

Executives from shopping center operators General Growth Properties, Taubman Centers and Edens all told CNBC that they have constant security and safety measures in place, which are both visible and invisible.

"Unfortunately, the threat of terrorism is not a recent issue and since 9/11, the shopping center industry has worked diligently with the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and local law enforcement officials on training and preparedness," the International Council of Shopping Centers said in a statement.

That includes a $2 million investment it made to develop a training course on how to respond to an act of terrorism. Mall security workers can enroll for free, and more than 30,000 have completed the course.

"We think [about it] all the time because our whole purpose is to bring community together," Jodie McLean, CEO of Edens shopping centers, told CNBC on Wednesday. "If people don't feel safe, they don't feel comfortable. It's a huge issue not only for us but our communities."