- By Thanksgiving afternoon, long lines of people were already forming outside of Target, Best Buy and J.C. Penney locations, among other retailers.
- "There is exceptional traffic," Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, told CNBC.
- Digital sales were also robust, with Adobe Analytics saying U.S. shoppers had spent $640 million as of 10 a.m. ET.
Black Friday still has shoppers across America lining up outside stores, anticipating deep discounts and doorbusters, albeit spending continues to shift online.
By Thanksgiving afternoon, long lines of people were already forming outside of Target, Best Buy and J.C. Penney locations, among other retailers, across the country. Wal-Mart opted to keep its stores open all day on Thursday, with Black Friday deals beginning at 6 p.m.
"There is exceptional traffic," Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, told CNBC. "It's definitely up."
His retail consultancy has 20 members surveying customer traffic across the U.S.
Johnson added that he saw many younger shoppers taking to outlet stores Thursday evening to shop athletic brands including , and Adidas. His team also monitored particularly longer-than-usual lines forming outside some Best Buy stores, ahead of their 5 p.m. opening.
This year, Deloitte has forecast retail holiday sales to increase a "healthy" 4 to 4.5 percent compared with last year.
"Depending on the weather, I think folks will spend more time in stores today and tomorrow than any day this holiday season," Rod Sides, vice chairman of Deloitte's retail practice, told CNBC. He was stationed Friday morning inside the Hanes Mall in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he saw a wide range of people including grandmothers to high school teens shopping, along with a higher-than-normal amount of younger consumers.
On Black Friday, footwear inventory was "jumping off the shelf," and one home improvement store was "packed," with more than double its normal volume of shoppers, he said.
"The cyber side will start to take over toward the end of the season, when people don't have as much time," Sides added.
That said, digital sales were also robust, with Adobe Analytics saying U.S. shoppers had spent $640 million as of 10 a.m. ET. That represents an 18.4 percent increase from a year ago. Adobe tracks 80 percent of online transactions at the top 100 U.S. retailers.
At Wal-Mart, customers were seen rushing in for smart TVs, cookware, toys and apparel, Chief Merchandising Officer Steve Bratspies said. Meanwhile, the big-box retailer was facing some backlash on social media for running out of items online.
Target said top sellers included Dyson and iRobot vacuums, Beats headphones, the Instant Pot 7-in-1 pressure cooker and Ninja coffee maker. When the big-box retailer's doors opened at 6 p.m., it was also selling roughly 600 giant plush teddy bears every minute.
At many J.C. Penney stores, shoppers formed lines outside by lunchtime on Thursday, waiting for doors to open as early as 2 p.m. The department store chain was doling out coupon doorbusters, with the chance to win $500.
Macy's CEO Jeff Gennette told CNBC Friday morning the holiday selling season is off to a "strong start," and the retailer is making use of fewer promotions compared with past years. This could entail better profit margins in the company's fourth quarter, as department stores have struggled of late with traffic dropping off at malls.
Black Friday circular discounts came in slightly less than last year, with retailers offering 44 percent off on average, compared to 45 percent last year, according to Market Track.
Across all categories, the steepest discounts compared to last year were in kids' outerwear (28 percent steeper) and entertainment (10 percent steeper), the group found.
"The numbers are really positive … and it's been a few years since we had a really solid holiday season," Matthew Shay, CEO of the National Retail Federation, told CNBC's "Squawk Box" on Friday morning. NRF, the industry's trade group, is predicting a 3.6 to 4 percent gain in retail holiday sales.
Calling this weekend retail's "Super Bowl," Shay said stores are set to make money, and it "makes sense" considering the state of the U.S. economy, there's no looming government shutdown, the weather is "pretty good" and unemployment is notably low.
Most retailers expect heavy foot traffic in stores to continue through the weekend before they hit a lull up until Christmas week, as usually is the case.
"The challenge for retail is to harness the personal need drivers behind this early spending, convert it into a continued desire to spend on more traditional gift items throughout the season, and do so in ways that extends beyond deep discounting," NPD analyst Marshal Cohen said.
The market research group has also determined that so far in November, the "hottest products" are mainly related to self-gifting, or shoppers spending on themselves.
Top-performing categories include prestige beauty, women's apparel, athletic footwear and small home appliances, Cohen said.
To avoid a drop off in foot traffic come early December, Kohl's CEO Kevin Mansell told CNBC the retailer's Kohl's Cash coupons, which are being handed out on Black Friday, are one way to drive shoppers back to stores before they expire.
Mansell added that the top three best-selling items for Kohl's on Black Friday were the Instant Pot, a Fitbit device and the Apple Watch. Apparel was also selling remarkably well, he said, with athletic brands Nike, Under Armour and Adidas leading the way.
Kohl's is also kicking off "Cyber Week" Saturday evening, and for the first time will feature the same online deals all week long across its physical stores.
"You can't lean against the ways that consumers want to buy," Mansell said. But he added there are still ways to drive excitement around shopping in stores through the holidays.
Shares of multiple department store chains were climbing Friday on holiday sales optimism. Macy's stock was up more than 4 percent, Kohl's was up nearly 3 percent and J.C. Penney was climbing close to 2 percent. Shares of Sears Holdings, Nordstrom and Dillard's were also moving higher.