New York/ Chicago: Retailers may not reap hefty gains from the longer lines of shoppers snaked around malls across the US at the traditional post-Thanksgiving start of the holiday shopping season; broader bargain hunting driven by budgetary fears may depress overall holiday spending.
Eager shoppers hunted for bargains on big-screen televisions, video games and toys while fretting about their own shaky economic well-being, suggesting they may pull out their wallets for bargains but not for much else.
Some stores pushed their openings and specials up to Thanksgiving night, hoping to get a jump-start on the busiest day of their year.
The chains are trying to win big on "Black Friday," the day after the US Thanksgiving holiday.
While Black Friday has been the busiest day for years in terms of traffic at stores, it does not always mean that sales will soar for the season. Despite brisk sales right after Thanksgiving, total holiday season sales fell in both 2008 and 2009 when the recession took its hold on America's wallets.
The National Retail Federation, an industry trade group, expects 152 million people to hit stores this weekend, up 10.1 percent from last year. Yet it only expects sales for the full November-December holiday season to rise 2.8 percent, after climbing 5.2 percent in 2010.
Luxury chains, such as Saks Inc, and those catering to lower-income shoppers, such as dollar stores, are seen as the big winners this season, while mid-market retailers are expected to have a tough time winning over shoppers without the cache of the high-end set or the deep discounts others offer.
Opening early appeared to work, judging from the long lines at stores such as Toys R Us, Best Buy, Walmart and Target.
Even after a Toys R Us in New Jersey had been open for nearly an hour, at 9:50 p.m. EST on Thursday night, there was still a line of about 300 people waiting to get inside.
"It was like 'Club Toys R Us' -- one cart out, one cart in," said Charlie O'Shea, a senior retail analyst at Moody's.
After a woman walked out of the store with a large Little Tikes toy in her cart, the man waiting for her outside gave her a high-five, O'Shea said.
"People are looking for the big ticket item which is where they're going to get the most bang for their buck," said O'Shea, who also saw "a smattering of carts" with small goods.
Retail executives and analysts are predicting a more competitive season than 2010. US unemployment still remains at 9 percent, European debt woes are weighing on the stock market and consumer confidence remains spotty.
This year there appeared to be some rough going, with reports of a shopper at a Los Angeles-area Walmart spraying pepper spray at a throng of shoppers to keep them away from the items she wanted. In 2008, a security officer working at a Walmart on Black Friday was trampled to death by a crowd.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc, Old Navy, which is part of Gap Inc, and Kmart, owned by Sears Holdings, were among the few retailers open on Thanksgiving.
Walmart began offering Black Friday deals at 10 p.m. on Thursday, while Target Corp, electronics chain Best Buy and department store chains Macy's Inc and Kohl's Corp opened at midnight - their earliest starts ever.
Other retailers, including J.C. Penney Co Inc, opened early Friday morning as they did last year.
Nelson Sepulveda, a building superintendent from Manhattan, was the first person in line at the Best Buy in Union Square, having queued up at 8 p.m. on Wednesday -- 28 hours before the store opened -- to get the USD 200 Sharp 42-inch LCD television, Play Station 3 games and other items he wanted.
This year, the heavy push got an even earlier start, as retailers such as Walmart and Toys R Us started offering holiday layaway programs as early as October.
Retailers from Amazon.com to Walmart were also offering online deals as Thanksgiving has become one of the biggest online shopping days of the year.
Some shoppers said that they feel as if the economy is back in a recession, leading them to change their shopping habits.
"Because of the recession, we are not going to shop as much," said Desiree Schoolfield, 49, a public service professional from Queens, who was shopping at the Toys R Us in Times Square.
About 1,000 people were waiting in line at the opening of the Target in Farmingdale, New York.
Those midnight openings drew online petition protests from store workers, and some shoppers also did not like the early openings.
Dwayne Dickson, a 19-year-old college student who works part time at Target, decided to stand in line to try to snag some small items, such as jewelry and clothing, before his Black Friday shift began.
"I will probably accidentally spend more this year on the holidays than I did last year," said Dickson, who, as a Target employee, gets an extra 10 percent discount.
For some shoppers, staying up late beat waking up for a 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. opening.
"Nobody really has to be out so early to come into the store. I really feel like that's better," Tosha Smith, a 21-year-old hotel attendant from Queens, said while shopping at Macy's.
At Macy's in Herald Square, four Occupy Wall Street activists chanted "boycott Macy's" and "stop supporting big corporations" even as about 9,000 people lined up to shop at the store.
The knock-down-drag-out fight comes as the rebound in sales cooled in October, when many top chains like Macy's and Saks reported disappointing sales.
It will be even tougher for chains that have struggled with sales declines lately, like Gap and J.C. Penney.