In Annandale, Va., rock salt had been sprinkled on the parking lot in front of the Kmart that opened at 6 a.m. Though the temperature was just below freezing, a handful of shoppers were lured out of bed for discounted electronics or to browse in advance of Friday's sales. Wind had partly dislodged a plastic banner hanging above the entry.
Under a "Mas Navidad" sign near the customer service desk, Cindy Kennedy, 39, did not see why people would object to Thanksgiving store hours and people working the holiday. Northern Virginia is home to many immigrants, like her husband, who is from El Salvador, she said.
"I have a family, so I'll be spending it with my family, but other people don't, or it's not their holiday because they're not from here," Mrs. Kennedy said. "Not everybody celebrates Thanksgiving. It's not a world holiday."
Stores like J. C. Penney and Macy's were opening for the first time on Thanksgiving at 8 p.m., although others, like Toys "R" Us opened a few hours earlier. Old Navy was open until late afternoon, and then reopening in the evening, when some of its first customers will have a chance to enter a sweepstakes in which one person will win $1 million. And everything in the store will be 50 percent off.
(Read more: 5 ways to beat Black Friday deals)
This is a critical time of year for retailers, given that holiday season shopping generally accounts for about 20 percent of the retail industry's annual sales, according to the National Retail Federation. Last year, 139.4 million people went shopping through the Thanksgiving weekend, the federation said.
But with many Americans still struggling with stagnant wages, retail executives have warned of a lackluster holiday season. Anxiety about low traffic — in-store and online — coupled with tight budgets has spurred strenuous competition for the lowest possible price. Executives at Best Buy acknowledged that intensely competitive pricing on certain goods would most likely have a negative impact on its bottom line, even though its overall financial health has recently improved.