The holiday shopping season kicked off much earlier this year, as at least a dozen national retail chains from Macy's to Gap to Target opened their stores on Thanksgiving Day. Many people complained about the early start and the mad rush for deals. In Rhode Island, volunteers set up a coat-exchange program as an alternative to consumerism.
The day after Thanksgiving, called Black Friday, is typically the biggest shopping day of the year. For a decade, it had been considered the official start of the holiday buying season. But in the past few years, retailers have pushed opening times into Thanksgiving night. They've also pushed up discounting that used to be reserved for Black Friday into early November, which has led retail experts to question whether the Thanksgiving openings will steal some of Black Friday's thunder.
The holiday openings came despite threatened protests from workers' rights groups, which are opposed to employees working on the holiday instead of spending the day with family.
(Read more: 10 must-have gifts for gadget lovers)
Overall, the National Retail Federation expects retail sales to be up 4 percent to $602 billion during the last two months of the year. That's higher than last year's 3.5 percent growth, but below the 6 percent pace seen before the recession.
Analysts expect sales to be generated at the expense of profits, as retailers will likely have to do more discounting to get people into stores.
Here's how the start of the holiday shopping season is playing out. All times are EST, unless otherwise specified:
- Friday, 1:45 p.m.: Some avoid Black Friday and donate or get coats instead in Rhode Island.
While shoppers were spending Black Friday at the mall, some people in Rhode Island were taking a break from commerce to give away a coat or get one for free.
It's the state's twist on Buy Nothing Day, a two-decade-old statement against consumerism that started in Vancouver and is now marked on the day after Thanksgiving in some places in the U.S.
Greg Gerritt, an environmental activist from Providence, liked the idea of Buy Nothing Day but wanted to do something that gave back to the community. So he came up with the idea of having people donate a coat or get one for free. The state's Buy Nothing Day coat exchange is now marking its 17th year and has inspired similar events in Kentucky and Utah, Gerritt said.
This year, 15 sites were set up around Rhode Island for people to give or take a coat. The exchange on the lawn of the Statehouse went through a few thousand coats last year. Gerritt picked that site intentionally because it sits in the shadow of the Providence Place mall. He said he hopes the location will highlight the negative effects of consumerism on society.
Maureen Keane is unemployed and picked up four coats for friends as Christmas gifts. She says she can't afford gifts this year and calls it a wonderful program.
- Friday, 1:30 p.m.: J.C. Penney store manager feels encouraged after lackluster 2012.
Joe Cardamone, store manager of J.C. Penney's Manhattan store, said he's encouraged by the traffic and sales he is seeing. Penney spokeswoman Daphne Avila said the chain saw similar crowds at other locations across the country.
A year ago, Penney didn't open until 6 a.m. Friday. That made the retailer one of the laggards for the unofficial kickoff to the shopping season. It also cobbled together a few deals at the last minute. This year, most stores opened at 8 p.m. Thursday.
"It felt like getting back to the old times," Cardamone said. "Last year, it was heartbreaking because we were never in the game."
He added that he saw new customers and once-loyal ones who hadn't been back for a while.
The encouraging signs come as Penney is trying to recover from a botched transformation plan spearheaded by Ron Johnson, who was ousted as CEO in April after 18 months on the job.
Penney brought back Johnson's predecessor, Mike Ullman, as CEO. He is restoring frequent sales and basic merchandise that were eliminated as Johnson aimed to attract a more affluent, younger shopper.
- Friday, 1:20 p.m.: Black Friday shoppers at some stores in Newark, Del., were left in the dark briefly.
The Christiana Mall had a partial power outage, though many stores still had power.
Delmarva Power said a fuse problem with the mall's electrical system caused the outage. Full power was restored in less than an hour. During the outage, some storefronts pulled down security gates. There was also an increased police and mall security presence.
- Friday, 1:05 p.m.: Most deals not worth the hassle for Georgia couple
Tony Abruzzio was at a Best Buy store in Savannah, Ga., to get $230 off a laptop for his college-student daughter.
Otherwise, Abruzzio and his wife, Sherry, were more interested in avoiding big crowds than scoring savings on Black Friday. They aborted an attempt to buy gifts at Savannah's Bass Pro Shop when they saw what looked like at least 100 people waiting for cashiers.
"I just put our stuff back," Abruzzio said. "We didn't want to stand in line all day."
(Read more: Black Friday arrests at Wal-Mart wage protest)
Sherry Abruzzio said she tends to do much of her Christmas shopping online and finds she gets better deals if she waits until mid- to late-December.
"I do most of it right before Christmas because by then they're trying to get rid of their inventory," she said.
- Friday, 12:55 p.m.: Online sales live up to promise on Thanksgiving, according to preliminary data.
E-commerce sales rose 20 percent on Thanksgiving compared with last year, according to IBM Benchmark, which tracks e-commerce sales for 800 retailers. Still, heavy discounting and shoppers' use of coupons depressed the dollar transactions. The number of items shoppers threw in rose 1 percent, but the average order size slipped 2.5 percent to $127.59.
Growth was moderate in the morning and afternoon on Thanksgiving, at about 10 percent. It then surged at 8 p.m. when many merchants opened their physical stores for shopping and posted new Black Friday promotions on their sites.
"We are definitely seeing savvy shopper benefit from early discounting that stores are doing," said Jay Henderson, strategy director for IBM's Smarter Commerce.
IBM also said traffic from mobile devices accounted for 43 percent of all online traffic on Thanksgiving, up from 32 percent a year ago.
Meanwhile, Wal-Mart said mobile accounted for 53 percent of total traffic to Walmart.com on Thanksgiving, the highest to date. That figure averaged 40 percent during last year's holiday season. On Thursday, mobile traffic on Walmart.com peaked at 7 p.m.
- Friday, 12:45 p.m.: Black Friday—and its problems—aren't limited to the United States.
At least one person has been injured in Northern Ireland as shoppers rushed to get their hands on deals for Black Friday, a day of sales modeled on the American kick-off to the holiday shopping season.
British supermarket chain Asda—owned by U.S. retail giant Wal-Mart— has been advertising its Black Friday deals throughout the U.K.
The Northern Ireland Ambulance Service said it was called to Westwood Center in Belfast and took a woman with an arm injury to the hospital.
Asda's Westwood store had two dozen 32-inch TVs on sale at reduced prices, according to Britain's Press Association.
Asda said in a statement that the safety of its customers is of "vital importance" and that it has extra security teams in stores.
- Friday, 12:20 p.m.: In an interview, Macy's CEO says employees chose Thanksgiving shifts.
Like many other retailers, Macy's began offering deals on Thursday. Some workers' rights groups threatened protests at various retailers.
Macy's CEO Terry Lundgren said the company could have filled spots with temporary workers, but about 90 percent were filled by regular employees. He said the company gave first choice to its 176,000 full-time workers. Many were willing, he said, partly because of overtime pay.
"They preferred 8 to midnight," he said Friday morning. "They get time and a half and finish at 4 a.m. and are ready to go shopping with their friends."
In the Friday morning interview, Lundgren also said the overall holiday season was "so far, so good."
"There were more customers this year than last year," he said, adding that it remains to be seen whether that pace will continue.
In terms of online sales, demand was similar online and in stores, Lundgren said.
"Customers are starting their shopping journey on their phone, but they want to touch the cashmere and try on the shoe and boot to make sure it's just right," he said.
- Friday, 11:55 a.m.: Slow going in Tulsa, Okla., as mall opens early.
Suhail Zaidi, owner of a Bags and Bangles accessory store at the Woodland Hills Mall in south Tulsa, said Black Friday so far had been "slow motion."
Zaidi said he'd seen only about 20 customers by mid-morning Friday. Although the mall opened at 8 p.m. CST Thursday, compared with 5 a.m. CST Friday last year, he had seen the same amount of customers so far. Most of the customers who did purchase jewelry were buying small, lower-priced items.
Zaidi wasn't a big fan of opening earlier, but he said mall policy required that he do so.
"We opened up too early," he said. "We ruined the holiday."
Zaidi said the mall and his booth had been somewhat busy Thursday evening but it died down by 3 a.m. CST. "For me, Black Friday is a good shopping day, but opening up on Thanksgiving is ridiculous."
Woodland Hills will stay open until 10 p.m. CST Friday.
Jim Miller, 63, was one of about a dozen people sitting at the mall's food court and said he was surprised by the turnout.
"I thought there would be a bigger crowd than this—unless people came yesterday," he said.
- Friday, 11:35 a.m.: A dummy holds place in line for Anchorage shopper.
Annie Luck's Black Friday started Wednesday and included a mannequin.
The 53-year-old Anchorage woman set up a lawn chair at 4 p.m. Wednesday, local time, to stake out first place in line for the opening of Best Buy 26 hours later. She spent part of Wednesday night sleeping in her car. A dummy in a face mask and construction hat held her place.
The Anchorage Daily News reports Luck wore five pairs of pants and five shirts to stay warm in 16-degree temperatures.
Luck was shopping for three teenage sons. She figured she could save $1,100 by getting to the store early for two laptop computers and three iPods.
Luck says she wished she could have been home to cook Thanksgiving dinner but she's "going with the flow now."
- Friday, 11:20 a.m.: It's not all peaceful for shoppers.
Las Vegas police say a shopper carrying a big-screen TV home from a Target on Thanksgiving was shot by a thief.
Authorities say the incident happened at about 9:45 p.m. Thursday.
Police Lt. David Gordon says the victim was carrying the TV at an apartment complex near the University of Nevada, Las Vegas when someone fired warning shots, prompting him to drop the appliance. Gordon says the robber snatched the TV and took it to a vehicle, and the victim tried to wrestle it back. That's when the robber fired shots and hit the victim in the leg.
The shopper was taken to Sunrise Hospital with injuries that aren't considered life-threatening. No arrests have been made. It's unclear what happened to the TV.
Meanwhile, police in Utah say at least two people were knocked to the ground by a crowd of Wal-Mart shoppers jockeying for a $49 tablet computer. Police say store employees brought out a pallet of items wrapped in cellophane, and about 200 people rushed forward to grab the items as the workers cut the wrapper.
Police say neither person was seriously hurt in the incident Thursday night at a store in Clinton, about 30 miles north of Salt Lake City.
- Friday, 11 a.m.: Staying disciplined to avoid overspending
Mindy Snow of Chicago stopped by Target in Niles, Ill., with a notebook in hand. She was doing her best to stick to her list, which included clothes for her teenage daughter and wine glasses for her sister.
"I'm trying to remain disciplined but it's tough," she said. "So many cute things I keep seeing for myself."
Snow, 33, is an accountant and a single mom. She said she plans to spend about $500 on gifts this year -- a little more than last year -- but admitted it will be tough to keep to that.
"The older my daughter gets, the more expensive her taste is," she said.
Although Snow said she feels better about the economy this year, she wants to stick to her budget as a matter of principle.
"I try not to let Christmas get out of hand," she said. "It's really not supposed to be about the presents, right?"
- Friday, 10:50 a.m.: One shopper asks, what deal? Michael Feinman said he was surprised at the lack of deals overall. He thought it would have been more aggressive.
Feinman ought to know what makes a good deal. He works in merchandising for Bloomingdale's.
At a mall in Shorts Hills, N.J., Feinman suspects that the timing of the start of Hanukkah—coinciding with Thanksgiving this year—meant retailers knew people would spend. So he expects deals to get better, particularly in the two weeks before Christmas.
"I think you're going to see done aggressive pricing as the season progresses," he said.
- Friday, 10:40 a.m.: Toys R Us executive reports "nice crowds around the country."
"It was very steady overall, good crowds, lots of families shopping together," Toys R Us' chief merchandising operator, Richard Barry, said in an interview. "People are using it as an entertainment, having some fun and getting great deals in the holiday spirit."
Crowds were largest when the stores opened at 5 p.m. Thursday, then were quieter from 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. Another spike came at 5 a.m. as more deals kicked off.
He said popular items included classic toys, such as a 55-piece train table set that was half off at $40. Also selling well were Lego sets, a Thomas the Tank Engine board game and Nerf's Rebel bow-and-arrow set. People were also buying the children's video games "Skylanders" and "Disney Infinity."
Barry said people responded well to the stores' 5 p.m. opening, three hours earlier than last year.
"People liked the fact they could shop at a more humane hour and didn't have to get up in the middle of the night, and could spend time with family," he said. "Overall our whole strategy is to give customers what they want, how they want and when they want."
- Friday, 10:25 a.m.: A father faces felony child neglect charges after a Florida Highway Patrol trooper spotted a baby left alone in a car outside a Best Buy store.
The incident happened about 5:30 p.m. Thursday near Orlando.
Authorities say trooper Edy Rivera saw the infant in a car seat inside a locked car. He went into the store, looking for the vehicle's owner. When no one came forward, he broke the vehicle's window and got the baby boy out.
A short time later, officials say 34-year-old Haider Darwash returned to the vehicle. He told troopers he thought his wife had the baby. She was located standing in line at another business in the shopping center.
The child was not harmed.
Darwash was booked into jail. An attorney was not listed on jail records.
- Friday, 10 a.m.: Macy's says about 15,000 people waited in line for the opening of its flagship store in New York at 8 p.m. Thursday. That compares with the 11,000 people last year, when the store opened at midnight.
"It's unbelievable," CEO Terry Lundgren said in an interview Friday morning. "Clearly people are in the shopping mood."
On Thursday night, many of the shoppers were the "millennial" younger shopper in their 20s. By 5 a.m. Friday, the more traditional Macy's shopper, in their 30s and 40s, were out shopping, he said.
In terms of hot items, workout gear and women's shoes were "off the charts successful," Lundgren said. Because of the chilly weather, boots and sweaters were popular, too.
Popular deals included one for a bedsheet set. "Those were selling like crazy," he said.
Kitchen appliances like blenders, coffee makers and the $98 Nutribullet food appliance were popular, too, as were women's handbags.
- Friday, 9:45 a.m.: Phones and tablets are popular items at a Wal-Mart in North Bergen, N.J.
Flora Mattessich, a 54-year-old Fort Lee resident who works in marketing, said she normally doesn't shop on Black Friday but was hoping to get lucky on some electronics. But whether she continues shopping after that depended on "how long this line is and how aggravated I get," she said.
Kapil Bulsara, 31, of Saddle Brook, said he was at Wal-Mart on Thanksgiving night hoping to get an iPad Mini. But he gave up when he saw the long line, saying it wasn't worth the effort. Yet he was back Friday morning—this time hoping to score a deal for an AppleiPhone, which came with a $75 gift card.
Nour Assaf, a 20-year-old student, was also there for an iPhone—and vowed to head home after that.
- Friday, 9:30 a.m.: Naysayer couldn't resist TV deal
Vinnie Gopalakrishnan saw footage on TV of people shopping on Thanksgiving Day and thought they were all crazy.
(Read more: How retailers are spying on your Black Friday spree)
But then Gopalakrishnan's cousin told him about a 70-inch flat-screen TV on sale at Wal-Mart for about $1,000——a savings of about $600. Gopalakrishnan got in his car for his first Black Friday outing.
"I'm not even Christmas shopping," he said. The TV "is just for me."
The store was much quieter than the night before, when workers had set up metal barricades outside to keep people in an orderly line. By Friday morning, workers were dismantling the barricades and checkout operators were standing by their registers, waiting for customers.
As he waited at a store in Niles, Ill., Gopalakrishnan thought his odds were good, but knew there was no sure thing.
"There's blood in the water," said Gopalakrishnan, a 34-year-old restaurant manager from the Chicago suburb of Bolingbrook.
Friday, 9:15 a.m.: Authorities say a police officer suffered a broken wrist as he broke up a brawl between two men waiting in line for Black Friday shopping deals at a Southern California Wal-Mart store.
The San Bernardino Sun says the fight occurred about 7 p.m. Thanksgiving night when store managers decided to open the doors early to accommodate more than 3,000 waiting people. The doors were originally scheduled to open at 8 p.m.
Police say there were three fights at the store in Rialto. Two of them were inside over merchandise; the third was outside, when the officer got injured.
One of the men involved in the fight outside was arrested for suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon. Police allege that he was kicking the other man in the head when he was down on the ground.
- Friday, 9:05 a.m.: Jill Teal said she does most of her shopping online, but she was out at Kohl's department store in Clifton Park with her sister, Judy Espey. Their shopping trip started at 4 a.m.
Espey, the mother of three children ages 12 to 16, said her purchases included the Beats line of headphones and speakers.
She actually began her shopping Thursday night, when she ducked out after having dinner with her family to buy a 50-inch flat-screen television at Wal-Mart for $288. But said she's not thrilled that stores now open on Thanksgiving, believing that it takes away from the fun of shopping with friends on Black Friday.
(Read more: 10 must-have gifts for gadget lovers)
"I don't really dig the Thanksgiving night thing. I feel bad for the workers," Espey said. "They've ruined Black Friday."
- Friday, 8:50 a.m.: Promises, promises—deal guarantee falls through in Florida.
Crowds waiting for vouchers for a deal on televisions walked away empty-handed after an in-stock guarantee fell through at a Wal-Mart store near Tampa, Fla.
Wal-Mart had promised that shoppers can get a voucher to buy the product later if a store is sold out, as long as the shopper is inside the store within one hour of a doorbuster sales event. At the store in Lutz, Fla., that meant either a television or a voucher for anyone in line before 7 p.m. Thursday.
Customers told Bay News 9 that by 7:15 p.m., they were told that all the televisions and vouchers—were gone.
Pasco County Sheriff's deputies who were already working at the store were asked for assistance. The crowd didn't get unruly, but customers told the television station they were upset.
Wal-Mart spokeswoman Danit Marquardt said the company is looking into the situation.
"It is always our goal to take care of our customers—especially on an important shopping day like Black Friday."
- Friday, 8:35 a.m.: No fistfights, but store out of Furby
The atmosphere was calm at the stores Judy Phillips and Bonnie Dow had hit Friday morning. Their annual Black Friday trek began Thanksgiving night at a mall in Wilton, a town north of Albany, N.Y. They eventually made it to Target in nearby Clifton Park.
"No one's been fistfighting with anybody," Dow said.
Phillips said they got "great deals" on such items as blankets, sheets and comforters, but her efforts to buy the popular Furby toy had come up empty.
"They're all sold out," she said.
- Friday, 8:15 a.m.: Dana and Estevan Branscum of Chicago were stopping by a Target in the Chicago suburb of Niles to look for "little things" like movies.
"I never shop for big ticket items on Black Friday because I know I won't get them," said Dana Branscum, a 27-year-old grocery store manager.
The Friday morning visit was her second time at the store in less than 10 hours.
She and her mom headed out Thursday evening to do a full circuit of shopping: Kohl's, Target, J.C. Penney and Michael's craft store. She said it was much busier Thursday night than on Friday morning, but it also seemed more civilized than usual.
(Read more: Overstocked stores offering epic holiday bargains)
"I've been doing Black Friday for a couple years. It seemed very organized," she said. There even were still a few televisions left at Target when she and her mom arrived around 8:30 p.m. CST, a half-hour after the store opened. At that time, the lines for the checkout stretched about 20 feet into the nearby health and beauty department, she said.
Friday morning was considerably quieter, with no lines at the checkout and plenty of parking spots right out front at about around 6 a.m. CST.
"Everybody is sleeping now I think," said Estevan Branscum, a 24-year-old executive chef.
The Branscums plan to spend $800 to $1,000 this holiday season. They say if they had kids, they'd be spending much more.
Their big-ticket items this year—already purchased a week ago—were a TV for Estevan and a Coach purse for Dana.
They also stopped by Home Depot to buy a new Christmas tree.
- Friday, 7:45 a.m.: How to make sure you're getting the best deals? Many retailers, for instance, will match deals you find elsewhere. These apps can help you find better prices to show the cashier. Some let you search for coupons, while others tell you whether you're better off buying online instead. And one keeps track of all those promotional fliers that do little good if you forget them at home.
Unfortunately, If you prefer to shop at mom and pop stores, you won't find any deals here. But if you don't mind big retailers, these apps offer a hefty selection of deals from them. These are all free, easy to use and beautifully designed:
(Read more: Must-have video games this holiday season)
- RetailMeNot (available for Android, iPhone): This app lets you search for coupons from your favorite stores, so you can instantly save 10 percent, 20 percent or even more on a single item or your entire shopping cart. You can scroll through the list of hot deals on the home page or search for a specific store.
- Amazon and RedLaser (available for Android, iPhone, Windows): These two apps let you check prices online, for those retailers that will match cheaper prices you find in hopes you'll buy on the spot.
- Cartwheel by Target (available for Android, iPhone): Target's app has coupons for everything from electronics to toys to cereal. Once you find a coupon you want to use, you tap the add button. Then present the cashier with a single barcode that has collected all the coupons you selected.
- Flipp (available for iPhone): This app helps you find and track newspaper circulars. You can leave the paper behind, as Flipp has digital versions with the coupons in them.
- Friday, 7:30 a.m.: Curtis Akins, 51, drove about three hours from Tifton, Ga., to watch the annual Macy's tree-lighting ceremony at Lenox Square mall in Atlanta on Thanksgiving. The store opened for shoppers at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving, and the rest of the mall opened at midnight.
By 5 a.m. Friday, he was sitting on a bench—looking slightly exhausted—inside another mall as his wife shopped for deals. The North Point Mall in Atlanta's northern suburbs had the feel of an airport terminal in the pre-dawn hours, with some store gates open, others closed and many shoppers slowly shuffling along, bleary-eyed.
(Read more: Violence flares as shoppers hunt Black Friday deals)
Akins said he wasn't keen on Black Friday starting earlier and earlier.
"I think it's going to end because it's taking away from the traditional Thanksgiving," he said.
- Friday, 7:10 a.m.: Target has announced a "very successful start" to the Black Friday shopping weekend.
The retailer opened at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving, an hour earlier than a year ago. At Target.com, where nearly all the deals were available on Thanksgiving, traffic and sales were among the highest the Minneapolis-based retailer has seen in a single day.
In the early morning hours after the deals first became available, Target says its website saw two times more orders compared with a year ago at that time.
Hot items include Apple's iPad Air, several large-screen TVs and Nintendo's 3DS XL, which all sold out by mid-morning Thursday. In stores, crowds began gathering hours before the 8 p.m. opening. Target said that lines stretched several blocks.
Target said the stores' electronics and toys sections were popular destinations. In many locations, the Element 52-inch TV sold out in minutes.
- Friday, 7 a.m.: Colder temperatures aren't deterring shoppers in upstate New York, as Black Friday becomes a family affair.
"We like to shop this time of night. We get in and out. We're having a ball," said Rosanne Scrom as she left the Target store in Clifton Park, N.Y., at 5 a.m. with her sister and their daughters. It was about 20 degrees then.
Scrom said they spent about 20 minutes in the store buying "whatever we see on sale that people will like."
"We're spending more this year," said her daughter, Tiffani, 21.
"We're getting more bargains," her mother added.
The store wasn't jammed, and the Scroms said they had more time to mull purchases and not worry about people snatching items from their carts, something that has happened to Rosanne Scrom "lots of times" during previous Black Friday shopping excursions.
- Friday, 6:50 a.m.: Authorities say a police officer answering a call of alleged shoplifting at a Chicago area department store shot the driver of a car that was dragging a fellow officer.
The wounded driver of the car and the dragged officer were both taken for hospital treatment of non-life-threatening shoulder injuries, police say. Three people were arrested.
Mark Turvey, police chief in Romeoville, Ill., said police got a call shortly after 10 p.m. Thursday of two people allegedly shoplifting clothes from a Kohl's store in the southwest Chicago suburb.
"As officers approached the front door, one of the two subjects ran out the door into the parking lot" and the officer chased him to a waiting car, Turvey said.
"The officer was struggling with the subject as he got into the car and then the car started to move as the officer was partially inside the car. The officer was dragged quite some distance. He couldn't get out," Turvey said.
The police chief said a backup officer fired two or three shots toward the driver when he refused orders to stop, striking him once in the shoulder.
There were no reports of any injuries to shoppers hunting for deals ahead of Black Friday.
A store manager contacted early Friday said he had no further information and referred The Associated Press to a corporate spokeswoman, who didn't immediately return a message Friday.
- Friday, 6:30 a.m.: Wal-Mart Stores said that best sellers for its Thanksgiving sale included big-screen TVs, Apple's iPad Minis, laptops, Microsoft's Xbox One, Sony's PlayStation 4 and the game "Call of Duty: Ghosts."
The world's largest retailer said that customers also bought 2.8 million towels, 300,000 bicycles and 1.9 million dolls.
Wal-Mart started its deals at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving, two hours earlier than last year. The retailer said 1 million customers took advantage of its one-hour guarantee program, which allows shoppers who are inside a Wal-Mart store within one hour of a doorbuster sales event to buy that product and either take it home that day or by Christmas. That program started a year ago with three items and was expanded to 21 this year.
For the first time this year, customers were offered wristbands for popular products, allowing them to shop while they waited for deals.
(Read more: Q&A: 'I'd rather ______ than shop on Thanksgiving')
- Friday, 5:45 a.m.: Amazon has managed to attract customers from big store chains such as Wal-Mart and Best Buy with low prices and convenient shipping. Now, stores are fighting to get customers back.
Stores are doing such things as matching the lower prices on Amazon and offering the same discounts in stores as on their websites. For its part, Amazon is giving customers the option to pick up items at physical locations and adding Sunday delivery.
There's a lot at stake for both sides. Amazon has built a following, but wants to grow its business around the world. Meanwhile, brick-and-mortar retailers struggle to keep shoppers from using their stores as showrooms to test out and try on items before buying them for less on Amazon.
The holiday season ups the ante. Both online and brick-and-mortar retailers can make up to 40 percent of their annual revenue in November and December. And this year, they're competing for the growing number of shoppers who are as comfortable buying online as in stores.
- Thursday, 11 p.m.: J. C. Penney's store in Manhattan was busy with bargain shoppers buying discounted sweaters, bed sheets and luggage, but the store was not packed. Among the doorbuster deals were 50 percent off on all fashion silver jewelry. The struggling department needs a solid holiday shopping season to help recover from a botched up transformation plan.
The company has brought back sales events and basic merchandise like khakis in forgiving fits. To kick off the holiday shopping season, Penney opened at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving. That was much earlier than the 6 a.m. opening on Black Friday a year ago.
Tamara Robinson, 37, from Brooklyn, said she has been buying more at Penney in the last few months. Robinson was throwing bed sheets and comforters into her cart at Penney and planned to spend about $200 at the department store on Thursday. She then planned to go to Macy's and Best Buy.
"I am going to shop all night," she said.
- Thursday, 8 p.m.: Crowds of cheering shoppers pushed through the doors at the flagship Macy's Herald Square in New York City when it opened.
About 15,000 shoppers were at Macy's right before the doors opened, estimated Terry Lundgren, CEO, president and chairman of the department store chain. Last year, the store had 11,000 people right before the midnight opening.
Lundgren, who was at the entrance, told The Associated Press that the retailer knew it had to open when it found out other competitors were planning to open on Thanksgiving night. He also said it received positive feedback from its employees. "We're a competitive group," he said. "It's very clear they (the shoppers) want to be here at 8 p.m."
The store was featuring 375 doorbusters, up from last year's 200. Some of the deals included $79.99 jackets originally priced from $195 to $250, and cashmere sweaters for $39, marked down from 129.
Shelby Wheatley, 17, was with her mother, her mother's friend and her best friend, who all traveled from Orlando, Fla. Wheatley was looking for a prom dress and wanted to buy it in New York.
"I did Black Friday, but never Thursday—and never in New York," she said.
As for Thanksgiving, the group celebrated early with family last week.
"We just had dinner at TJI Fridays," she added.
- Thursday, just before 8 p.m.: At Macy's in the Manhattan borough of New York City, bargain shoppers were grabbing discounted coats, perfume and handbags. It was mayhem in the shoe department with shoppers pushing and shoving each other to grab boxes of cold weather boots, discounted by 50 percent, that were stacked high on tables. One item catching people's attention: Bearpaw boots that resembled Uggs. They were priced at $34.
"This is my first Black Friday, and I don't particularly like it," said Tammy Oliver, 45, who had a box of Bearpaw boots under her arm, a gift for herself. "But I did get some good deals."
Denise Anderson, 49, along with her husband and 16-year-old daughter, were visiting Manhattan from Fayetteville, Ark. They arrived in Manhattan on Saturday and had spent $3,000 to $4,000 on themselves. She has done Black Friday shopping back at home but wanted to do it in New York.
"We're people watching," she said. "We wanted to see the craziness."
- Thursday, 6 p.m.: An hour after its 6 p.m. opening, Best Buy at Union Square in New York City was bustling, with big TVs, Kindle e-book readers and laptops being popular purchases. Buying a TV on sale seemed to be most people's priority.
"My friend is chewing me out right now for not being there," said Rodney Bernard, 39, a writer in the Bronx. Instead of being at his friend's Thanksgiving celebration, he was at Best Buy. "But I really needed a TV."
He saw a deal in the paper for an Insignia 39-inch TV for $169, but ended up buying a more expensive 40-inch Samsung TV after a store salesman said he could get $20 off if he applied for a Best Buy credit card. He got the TV for $399 and it was originally $700 or $800.
Meanwhile, his friend doesn't approve of shopping on Thanksgiving. "He's upset with myself right now. He feels offended and is like don't even come by."
Bernard agrees but thinks it's OK to shop if you really need something.
Fortunately he says, his parents and immediate family are celebrating Thanksgiving on the 30th because several people had to work today.
"It's not like I lost something, I'll be celebrating."
- Thursday, 5:41 p.m.: A Kmart store in the Manhattan borough of New York City was packed with people shopping for clothing and holiday decor items. The discounter, whose parent is Sears Holdings, opened at 6 a.m. and planned to stay open for 41 hours straight. Clothing was marked down from 30 percent to 50 percent.
Adriana Tavaraz, 51, from the Bronx, who had just finished work at a travel agency at around 4 p.m., spent $105 on ornaments, Santa hats and other holiday decor for herself and her family at Kmart. She saved about 50 percent. But Tavarez said her holiday budget was tight because she was grappling with higher costs like food and monthly rent, which rose $100 to $1,700 this year.
"I struggle a lot," said Tavaraz, who started saving for holiday presents in June and planned to spend a total of $200 for holiday presents. "Nowadays, you have to think about what you spend. You have to think about tomorrow."
As for celebrating Thanksgiving, she planned to have her family over for dinner at 8 p.m.
"Everything is ready," she said.
- Thursday, 4:30 p.m.: At Best Buy in New York City, 70 people are in line before the 6 p.m. opening. A popular deal was the Microsoft Windows Surface tablet on sale at $199 from $350.
Jamal Afridi, 35, a truck driver from Utah but living temporarily in New York, was in line to buy a 39-inch TV for $160 from $299. He tried to buy it online but it was sold out.
"I checked over the last two days, I wouldn't have come out otherwise," he said. He was also interested in the Surface tablet deal, though. "This was the best deal if the year," he said.
He doesn't mind earlier hours on Thanksgiving. "I don't have to get up early in the morning," he said. "Who cares it's just another day, I'll eat later."
- Thursday afternoon: Pizza Hut has offered to rehire the manager of a northern Indiana restaurant who was fired over his refusal to open up on Thanksgiving Day.
Tony Rohr said he has worked at the Elkhart restaurant since starting as a cook more than 10 years but was told to write a letter of resignation after his refusal. He said he declined in a meeting with his boss and instead wrote a letter explaining that he believed the company should care more about its employees.
"I said, `Why can't we be the company that stands up and says we care about our employees and they can have the day off?'" Rohr told WSBT-TV of South Bend, Ind.
Rohr said he was thinking about the other workers at the restaurant.
"Thanksgiving and Christmas are the only two days that they're closed in the whole year, and they're the only two days that those people are guaranteed to have off and spend it with their families," he said.
Plano, Texas-based Pizza Hut issued a statement Wednesday saying it respects an employee's right to not work on the holiday and that the store owner has agreed to reinstate Rohr.
—By The Associated Press