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Wal-Mart's hottest Black Friday seller was a 29-cent towel

The must-have item at Wal-Mart on "Black Friday" wasn't a mega TV, sleek tablet or the latest giggling Elmo. It was towels.

It's a sign of the times that consumers battered by a recovery that has boosted corporate profits but has done little to raise their own bottom lines are reduced to scrapping over basic bathroom supplies.

Customers wait in line to enter a Wal-Mart on Thanksgiving Day in Troy, Mich.
Getty Images
Customers wait in line to enter a Wal-Mart on Thanksgiving Day in Troy, Mich.

The retailer announced it had sold 2.8 million towels during the shopping event, which this year started even earlier at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. The textile sales outpaced the 300,000 bicycles, 1.4 million tablets and 2 million televisions sold during the period, and also beat last year's towel sales by 1 million.

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For $1.74, bath towels and six packs of washcloths were available. That breaks down to $0.29 per washcloth.

"We've seen at-home items like towels and sheets and even Rubbermaid Tupperware become popular on Black Friday at our stores," said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Deisha Barnett. "A lot of people are either hosting guests for the weekend or preparing for guests for the holiday season."

Reports of physical struggles to snag the deals lit up on social media.

One YouTube video showed 15-20 shoppers at a Wal-Mart in Bloomingdale, Ill., held at bay by a police officer and three Wal-Mart employees until the store gave the signal to start on Thursday.

"It was like ESPN in Wal-Mart," said Anthony Schullo, a 20-year-old student at North Central College who taped the incident and uploaded it online. Shoppers hustled and grabbed the towels and other items, shouting "go get it!"

(Read more: Early figures point to blockbuster 'Cyber Monday')

The aisle was filled with adrenalin and anticipation beforehand, said Schullo. He said Wal-Mart employees asked everyone to stand back from the display until the appointed time. Customers chided and sniped at anyone who got too close, getting agitated when other shoppers broke the rules and grabbed the merchandise before the 6 p.m. kickoff.

In another video, a man propped up by another man left the scene of Wal-Mart towel sale clutching his stomach.

"This is an example of one video being used to talk about what's happening across the country," said Wal-Mart's Barnett, who noted the retailer's over 4,000 stores serve more than 22 million on Thanksgiving Day. "We have had some of our safest Black Friday events we've seen at Wal-Mart."

Shoppers also took to Twitter to report incidents.

—By Ben Popken, NBC News

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