Holiday Central

Early Black Friday: Never-never land for shoppers?

Durable goods on display at Best Buy.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

Just a few years ago, 5 a.m. was the magic hour for Black Friday, when shoppers crowded into just-opened stores for doorbuster deals. Now, it's often a ghost town.

The Target in Hackensack, N.J., was quiet at that time, with no music playing and only a handful of shoppers wandering the aisles. Most of the full carts were pushed by employees reshelving items discarded during the initial rush when the store opened at 8 p.m. Thanksgiving night. "Do you have any of the [$229] 50-inch TVs left?" one hopeful shopper asked.

(Read more: 5 ways to beat Black Friday deals)

But those shelves were largely bare, with the doorbuster TVs long gone. (Latecomers would fare better with other doorbusters: Stacks of $19 Razor A scooters, regularly $35, and $99 SRT Viper ride-on cars, regularly $180, still lined the main aisle near the store's entrance.)

"I was expecting a line, and we got this. There's nobody here," said Kyle Reed of Dumont, N.J., who picked up a few doorbuster-sale DVDs, at prices ranging from $4 to $9.

Analysts say that's the new pattern, thanks to earlier store openings. The wide spread between the opening times forces shoppers to be strategic if they don't want to pull an all-nighter. Many head out early to grab doorbusters, go home and then come back out around 7 or 8 a.m. In between, "you're sort of in never-never land," said John D. Morris, senior retail analyst for BMO Capital.

Millions of shoppers hitting stores

Cold weather and online sales, many of which kicked in on or before Thanksgiving, may have contributed to slower store traffic, too, said R.J. Hottovy, director of consumer equity research at Morningstar. "It's noticeable that traffic's down this morning," said Hottovy, who visited Best Buy, Macy's and Target in Chicago on Friday morning.

"People were pretty much buying the doorbusters and leaving," said Jeff Green, an independent retail analyst based in Phoenix, who visited Macy's and Best Buy early Friday. As a result, shoppers Friday likely found clean, well-stocked stores. "Overnight employees didn't have much else to do," he said.

(Read more: Anatomy of a markdown: What you are really paying)

Crowds were a little more robust, but not by much, for Walmart's last round of doorbusters at 8 a.m. in Saddlebrook, N.J.

Romi Pelc of Elmwood Park, N.J., got in line at 7:45 a.m. to buy his mom a 97-cent Samsung Galaxy S III, which comes with a $100 bonus Walmart gift card. Fifteen minutes after the doorbuster price kicked in, there were just 10 people ahead of him in line.

"I didn't feel right going out on Thanksgiving Day," said Pelc.

It's still possible for shoppers who want to celebrate Thanksgiving to have the "traditional" Black Friday experience and score all the doorbusters. Bergen County, N.J., where CNBC is located, is subject to so-called blue laws that restrict hours for stores selling nonessential items. (Similar laws are in place in Massachusetts, Maine and Rhode Island, among other states.)

So while most Best Buy locations opened at 6 p.m. Thursday, the chain's location at Garden State Plaza in Paramus, N.J., didn't open until 7 a.m. Friday.

$ave Me: Scoring Black Friday deals

That let Travis Kiernan of Paramus enjoy Thanksgiving dinner, catch some sleep and make it to the store around 1.a.m., with only a dozen or so people ahead of him in line. An hour before opening—by which point the line wrapped around the building—Kiernan got a pass guaranteeing him a $499.99 Xbox One. "Now we just get to go in, la, la, la, and see what else is on sale," he said.

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But he said the earlier opening might have been the more comfortable choice. (At 6 a.m., it was a chilly 21 degrees.) "This is probably the worst line, because it's the biggest store [in the area] and has the most," he said.

Trish Baker of Baluvelt, N.Y., arrived at 6:15 a.m.—but only because, she said, she wanted a good parking spot before the mall opened at 7 a.m. Baker planned to stop at Urban Outfitters, where employees were letting shoppers inside in small groups to get sale items marked down another 50 percent, and Nordstrom, but started at Macy's, where multiple mall entrances thinned the crowds angling for doorbusters including $20 Rampage boots, regularly $60 and up.

Most other Macy's locations opened at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving. "This is better for me," Baker said. "I was cooking yesterday."

By CNBC's Kelli B. Grant. Follow her on Twitter @kelligrant.