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!"
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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