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Less Stress—and More Bags—This Black Friday

With Black Friday deals kicking off on Thanksgiving evening and continuing into Friday afternoon, shoppers walking the mall appeared less stressed and more willing to buy.

Richard W. Rodriguez | AP Images for Target

There were long lines as the shopping frenzy known as Black Friday kicked off at a more civilized hour, with some shoppers welcoming decisions by retailers such as Target and Toys 'R Us hat moved their openings earlier into Thursday night.

Shoppers seemed to show little concern that the U.S. economy could be pushed over a "fiscal cliff," if a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts take effect in January. Some economists fear that could lead to another recession.

Shoppers appeared to be carrying more bags than they did last year at the Glendale Galleria mall, according to Jackie Fernandez, a partner at Deloitte & Touche, who serves the retail and distribution sector.

"There isn't the same frenzy, with shoppers fighting for whatever bargains there are," Fernandez said, in an interview with CNBC.com. "It's nothing like that this year, it's a lot more relaxed."

Fernandez expects that bodes well for holiday season. A consumer survey Deloitte took ahead of the holiday suggested shoppers would spend an average of $286 over the holiday weekend, which is a 28 percent increase from a similar survey last year.

(Read More: Black Friday Creep's Latest Victim: Restaurants)

Yet the National Retail Federation expects sales during the holiday season to grow 4.1 percent this year, a more modest pace of growth than in the prior year. That makes the stakes high for U.S. retailers, who can earn more than one-third of their annual sales and 40 to 50 percent of their profits during the holiday season, which generally starts with Black Friday.

"I think spending is better for the economy. I think you should spend. If you save all your money that will only make it worse," said Saiful Islam, 21, a New York accounting student who stood in line at Best Buy to purchase a variety of gadgets. "The line is bad, but the deals are good."

Online, the early signals about holiday spending were strong, with plenty of so-called couch commerce going on during Thanksgiving. IBM estimates that online shopping on Thursday was up 17.4 percent over 2011. Shopping on mobile devices had a break-out day, with the volume of shoppers using a smartphone or tablet to visit a retail website at 25.3 percent, up 66.2 percent over 2011.

At the stores, many shoppers were upbeat. "I definitely have more money this year," said Amy Balser, 26, at the head of the line outside the Best Buy store in the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota. "I definitely don't think (the economy) has bounced back anywhere near as much as it needs to, but I see some improvement," she said.

While younger people like Balser generally said they felt comfortable spending money, those who are retired or close to it seemed to be more cautious.

Retired stockbroker Jack Connoly, 65, stood idly while his wife Mary tried on clothes at a Macy's in New York.

"Oh, we're spending less this year, whatever Mary says. Look at the stock market. If they don't do a deal on the debt by the end of December it's bye bye stock portfolio. We're being cautious," he said.

Long Lines for an Early Start

Across the country, store lines were long — in the hundreds or more in many places — though the move toward earlier opening hours appeared to have helped. By sunrise on Friday, it was commonplace, even at large stores in the major cities, to find many more staffers than shoppers.

While the shift was denounced by store employees and traditionalists because it pulled people away from families on the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, many shoppers welcomed the chance to shop before midnight or in the early morning hours.

"I think it's better earlier. People are crazier later at midnight," said Renee Ruhl, 52, a hotel worker, at a Target store in Orlando, Florida, where she was already heading to her car with an air hockey game in her shopping cart 2-1/2 hours before the chain opened last year.

(Read More: What Makes the Black Friday Shopper Tick?)

Others were not as happy with an earlier Black Friday. A petition asking Target to "save Thanksgiving" had 371,606 supporters as of Thursday afternoon.

Protests at Walmart

Some workers used the day to send a message.

OUR Walmart — a coalition of current and former Wal-Mart Stores' staff seeking better wages, benefits and working conditions — has staged months of protests outside stores and targeted Black Friday for action across the country.

In Chicago, four busloads of protesters, including some Walmart workers, showed up at a store on the city's South Side for a 7 a.m. protest. The crowd chanted "Walmart, Walmart you're no good, treat your workers like you should!" though their activities did not appear to deter shoppers.

Rosetta Brown, who has been with the company for 15 years and works at the Sam's Club store in Cicero, Illinois, took part in the protest and lamented how employees are treated now versus in the days of company founder Sam Walton.

"Sam Walton was a good man ... Walmart passed away with him," she said.

But Wal-Mart said the protest didn't have much impact on its business. Since its promotions began at 8 p.m., the company reported that it sold more than 1.8 million towels, 1.3 million televisions, 1.3 million dolls, and 250,000 bicycles. From 8 p.m. through midnight — the retailer's busiest time — the retailer said it processed almost 10 million register transactions and almost 5,000 items per second.

Customers also said the staggered deals offered by the retailer helped with crowd control.

"There's no stress, no bustling, no people busting down doors," Richard Stargill, a 43-year-old construction worker from New York, said, referring to incidents such as the 2008 death of a Wal-Mart worker who was trampled by a mob of eager shoppers.

As for the planned protests, Wal-Mart said 26 protests occurred at stores last night and many did not include Walmart associates.

"We estimate that less than 50 associates participated in the protest nationwide. In fact, this year, roughly the same number of associates missed their scheduled shift as last year," said Bill Simon, Walmart U.S. president and chief executive, in a press release.

High Stakes

The National Retail Federation had estimated 147 million people would shop Friday through Sunday, when deals are at their most eye-catching — down from 152 million the same weekend last year. It's still too early to know how actual turnout will fare.

At Macy's in Herald Square in Manhattan, the line at the Estee Lauder counter was four deep shortly after its midnight opening. The cosmetics department's "morning specials" included free high-definition headphones with any fragrance purchase of $75 or more, and a set of six eye shadows for $10.

(Read More: Black Thursday? Thanks, but No Thanks: Macy's CEO)

But for some people, cheap wasn't cheap enough — like the Macy's shopper who bought Calvin Klein shoes at 50 percent off but was not satisfied.

"I was hoping for deeper discounts," said Melissa Glascow, 35, a Brooklyn, New York, waitress who added she was saving her money for online discounts.

Getty Images

At the Target on Elston Avenue on Chicago's Northwest side — known as one of the highest-volume stores in the chain — the $25 Dirt Devil vacuum that normally goes for $39.99 was sold out, though there were still several large televisions available.

At 2 a.m. Central Time, Mall of America was poised to beat the record number of shoppers — 217,000 — that came on the same day last year, according to mall spokesman Dan Jasper.

The day is also a test for retailers shifting strategies, like J.C. Penney, which has been suffering from plunging sales as it moves away from coupons toward lower pricing and specialized boutiques within stores.

Amina Kebbeh, 18, of the Bronx, New York, was on line for the 6 a.m. Eastern Time opening of Penney's Manhattan store. Others stood with her, though the line was relatively tame.

"If they remove the coupons, no one is eager to come," she said.

Some shoppers also faulted the chain's decision not to open in the wee hours, like Christian Alcantara, 18, who visited the store in the Elmhurst section of Queens, New York, and suggested it cost the retailer money.

"They should open earlier. I've been everywhere else and I've already shopped," he said.

-CNBC.com contributed to this report.

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