NEW YORK/CHICAGO The U.S. shopping frenzy known as "Black Friday" kicked off at a more civilized hour, with shoppers welcoming decisions by retailers such as Target Corp and Toys R Us Inc to move their openings to Thursday night.
They also seemed to show little concern that the U.S. economy could be pushed over a "fiscal cliff," if a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts take effect in January. Some economists fear that could lead to another recession.
Yet the National Retail Federation expects sales during the holiday season to grow 4.1 percent this year.
The stakes are high for U.S. retailers, who can earn more than one-third of their annual sales and 40 to 50 percent of their profits during the holiday season, which generally starts with Black Friday.
"I think spending is better for the economy. I think you should spend. If you save all your money that will only make it worse," said Saiful Islam, 21, a New York accounting student who stood in line at Best Buy (BBY.N) to purchase a variety of gadgets. "The line is bad, but the deals are good."
According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, two-thirds of shoppers were planning to spend the same amount of money as last year or were unsure about plans, while 21 percent intended to spend less, and 11 percent planned to spend more.
"I definitely have more money this year," said Amy Balser, 26, at the head of the line outside the Best Buy store in the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota. "I definitely don't think (the economy) has bounced back anywhere near as much as it needs to, but I see some improvement," she said.
While younger people like Balser generally said they felt comfortable spending money, those who are retired or close to it seemed to be more cautious.
Retired stockbroker Jack Connoly, 65, stood idly while his wife Mary tried on clothes at a Macy's (M.N) in New York.
"Oh, we're spending less this year, whatever Mary says. Look at the stock market. If they don't do a deal on the debt by the end of December it's bye bye stock portfolio. We're being cautious," he said.
Across the country, store lines were long - in the hundreds or more in many places - though the move toward earlier opening hours appeared to have helped. By sunrise on Friday, it was commonplace, even at large stores in the major cities, to find many more staffers than shoppers.
While the shift was denounced by store employees and traditionalists because it pulled people away from families on the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, many shoppers welcomed the chance to shop before midnight or in the early morning hours.
"I think it's better earlier. People are crazier later at midnight," said Renee Ruhl, 52, a hotel worker, at a Target (TGT.N) store in Orlando, Florida, where she was already heading to her car with an air hockey game in her shopping cart 2-1/2 hours before the chain opened last year.
Others were not as happy with an earlier Black Friday. A petition asking Target to "save Thanksgiving" had 371,606 supporters as of Thursday afternoon. .
Some workers used the day to send a message.
OUR Walmart - a coalition of current and former Wal-Mart staff seeking better wages, benefits and working conditions - has staged months of protests outside stores and targeted "Black Friday" for action across the country.
In Chicago, four busloads of protesters, including some Walmart workers, showed up at a store on the city's South Side for a 7 a.m. protest. The crowd chanted "Walmart, Walmart you're no good, treat your workers like you should!" though their activities did not appear to deter shoppers.
Rosetta Brown, who has been with the company for 15 years and works at the Sam's Club store in Cicero, Illinois, took part in the protest and lamented how employees are treated now versus in the days of company founder Sam Walton.
"Sam Walton was a good man ... Walmart passed away with him," she said.
The National Retail Federation said 147 million people would shop Friday through Sunday, when deals are at their most eye-catching - down from 152 million the same weekend last year.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc's (WMT.N) U.S. discount stores, which have been open on Thanksgiving since 1988, offered some "Black Friday" deals at 8 p.m. on Thursday and special deals on certain electronics, like Apple Inc (AAPL.O) iPads, at 10 p.m.
The earlier hours lured people who had not braved the crowds before on Black Friday, said Jason Buechel, a senior executive in the retail practice of consultancy Accenture, in observing mall activity.
At Macy's (M.N) in Herald Square in Manhattan, the line at the Estee Lauder (EL.N) counter was four deep shortly after its midnight opening. The cosmetics department's "morning specials" included free high-definition headphones with any fragrance purchase of $75 or more, and a set of six eye shadows for $10.
But for some people, cheap wasn't cheap enough - like the Macy's shopper who bought Calvin Klein shoes at 50 percent off but was not satisfied.
"I was hoping for deeper discounts," said Melissa Glascow, 35, a Brooklyn, New York, waitress who added she was saving her money for online discounts.
At the Target on Elston Avenue on Chicago's Northwest side - known as one of the highest-volume stores in the chain - the $25 Dirt Devil vacuum that normally goes for $39.99 was sold out, though there were still several large televisions available.
At 2 a.m. CST (0800 GMT), Mall of America was poised to beat the record number of shoppers - 217,000 - that came on the same day last year, according to mall spokesman Dan Jasper.
The day is also a test for retailers shifting strategies, like J. C. Penney Co Inc (JCP.N), which has been suffering from plunging sales as it moves away from coupons toward lower pricing and specialized boutiques within stores.
Amina Kebbeh, 18, of the Bronx, New York, was on line for the 6 a.m. EDT (1100 GMT) opening of Penney's Manhattan store. Others stood with her, though the line was relatively tame.
"If they remove the coupons, no one is eager to come," she said.
Some shoppers also faulted the chain's decision not to open in the wee hours, like Christian Alcantara, 18, who visited the store in the Elmhurst section of Queens, New York, and suggested it cost the retailer money.
"They should open earlier. I've been everywhere else and I've already shopped," he said.
(Additional reporting by Martinne Geller and Jochelle Mendonca in New York, Dhanya Skariachan in Bloomington, Minn., Paul Ingram in Tucson, Arizona, Jason McLure in Littleton, New Hampshire, and Barbara Liston in Orlando, Florida; Writing by Brad Dorfman and Ben Berkowitz; Editing by Nick Macfie, David Holmes and Jeffrey Benkoe)