This year's Black Friday shoppers were split into two distinct groups: those who wanted to fall into a turkey-induced slumber and those who'd rather shop.
Stores typically open in the wee hours of the morning on the day after Thanksgiving -- known as Black Friday because of retail folklore that says it's when merchants turn a profit for the year. But after testing how shoppers would respond to earlier hours last year, stores such as Target and Toys R Us this year opened as early as Thanksgiving evening. That created two separate waves of shoppers.
Stu and April Schatz, residents of Rockland County, N.Y., preferred to get a later start. They went to the Shops at the Garden State Plaza mall in Paramus, N.J., which didn't open until 7 a.m. on Black Friday, because they didn't want to deal with the crowds that show up for openings late night on Thanksgiving or midnight on Black Friday.
"It's so much more civilized going in the morning," said April Schatz, a teacher. "We wanted to enjoy our evening."
The earlier hours are an effort by stores to make shopping as convenient as possible for Americans, who they fear won't spend freely during the November and December holiday season because of economic uncertainty. Many shoppers are worried about high unemployment and a package of tax increases and spending cuts known as the "fiscal cliff" that will take effect in January unless Congress passes a budget deal.
At the same time, Americans have grown more comfortable shopping on websites that offer cheap prices, and with the convenience of being able to buy from smartphones, laptops and tablet computers while just about anywhere. That puts added pressure on brick-and-mortar stores, which can make up to 40 percent of their annual revenue during the holiday shopping season, to give consumers a compelling reason to leave their homes.
That's becoming more difficult: the National Retail Federation, an industry trade group, estimates that overall sales in November and December will rise 4.1 percent this year to $586.1 billion, below last year's 5.6 percent growth. But the online part of that is expected to rise 15 percent to $68.4 billion, according to Forrester Research.
As a result, brick-and-mortar retailers have been trying everything they can to lure consumers into stores. Some stores tested the earlier hours last year, but this year more retailers opened their doors late on Thanksgiving or at midnight on Black Friday. In addition to expanding their hours, many also are offering free layaways and shipping, matching the cheaper prices of online rivals and updating their mobile shopping apps with more information.
"Every retailer wants to beat everyone else," said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, a research firm based in Charleston, S.C. "Shoppers love it."
Indeed, some holiday shoppers seemed to find stores' earlier hours appealing. Julie Hansen, a spokeswoman at Mall of America in Minneapolis, said 30,000 people showed up for the mall's midnight opening, compared with 20,000 last year. She noted that shoppers are coming in waves, and sales aren't just being shifted around.
"This is additional dollars," Hansen said.
About 11,000 shoppers were in lines wrapped around Macy's flagship store in Herald Square when it opened at midnight on Black Friday. That's up from an estimated 9,000 to 10,000 shoppers who showed up the store's midnight opening last year.
Joan Riedewald, a private aide for the elderly, and her four children ages 6 to 18, were among them. By that time, she already had spent about $100 at Toys R Us, which opened at 8 p.m., and planned to spend another $500 at Macy's before heading to Old Navy.
"I only shop for sales," she said.
Elizabeth Garcia, a sales representative from the Bronx, also decided on a later shopping start at about 3:30 a.m. at Toys R Us in New York's Times Square. As a result Garcia, whose three children are 3, 5 and 7, believes she dodged some of the lines on Thanksgiving when the store opened at 8 p.m. That's good news since the crowds got to her last year, and she almost got into a fight over a Tinker Bell couch.
"This year I wasn't about to kill people," she said.
Meanwhile, Nicole Page of Bristol, Conn., shopped with her sister at a Wal-Mart in Manchester, Conn., at about 4:45 a.m. on Black Friday out of tradition. Page, who recently finished school and started working as a nurse, bought an electric fireplace for $200 that she said was originally $600. Her shopping cart also had candy canes, a nail clipper for her dog and other stocking stuffers.
"We try to make a tradition of it. It's kind of exciting," she said.