This year, the packed-house madness that is Black Friday had petered out well before dawn.

With many stores opening at midnight Thursday and some starting sales hours earlier, thousands of Baltimore-area shoppers arrived — and left — in the wee hours. When nursing assistants Wendy Agusea and Christiana Anyajike walked into an hhgregg store in Hanover at 7:30 a.m. after working an overnight shift, they found none of the big deals they were hoping to get. Sony cameras for $50? Long gone.

"Next year I'll be sleeping in front of the shop," vowed Agusea, 26, slumped in a chair and clutching a sales circular full of "door-busters" bought by earlier shoppers. "Everything's sold out."

The rising number of earlier openings builds on a trickle last year, said Bill Martin, founder of ShopperTrak, which follows retail sales activity. He thinks retailers fear losing out to competitors if they wait until daybreak Friday to get started on the biggest shopping day of the year.

It's not an unreasonable fear. Unemployment is high, and surveys show consumer confidence is at its lowest level since the sharp recession that officially ended in 2009.

"The retailers are trying to get their share of the wallet before anybody else," Martin said.

Some unveiled Black Friday sales with hours of Thursday still to go. Walmart started its door-buster deals at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving. Toys 'R' Us opened at 9 p.m. Thursday.

New shopping patterns are emerging to adjust to that shift. The first people through the door used to be fresh out of bed, with 4 a.m. openings the norm. Now the early birds are coming straight from Thanksgiving dinner — or those who didn't skip it entirely to stand in line.

"A lot of people seemed like they had been up all night shopping," Katie Essing, general manager at The Mall in Columbia, said Friday. The mall had 21 stores open at midnight, twice as many as last year. (One was consistently packed: Starbucks, thanks to all those shoppers in need of caffeine.)

Essing thinks the earlier start was a good move. "It feels like a much stronger day," she said.

But some shoppers with years of Black Friday experience said the crowds didn't seem as big this year.

"The economy is just so hard," said Kim Geho, a teacher from Dundalk. She got to Arundel Mills at 3:30 a.m. and finished about five hours later, when the mall offered plenty of elbow room and there were empty parking spaces outside.

Some analysts speculate that the new start times are spreading out the crowds, so it could be the same number of people — or even more — but over a longer period. For now, those are just educated guesses because statistics won't be out until the weekend.

ShopperTrak predicts about 3 percent more sales throughout the holiday season compared with last year but less foot traffic, as shoppers focus their efforts on fewer stores to save on gas. The NPD Group expects 2 percent sales growth at most.

Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at the NPD Group, said stores that opened late Thursday "definitely got the early birds that got the worms." They also drew a new demographic — shoppers who were never willing to get up at 4 a.m. for Black Friday deals but gave the evening start a go.

Early-opening stores might not end up doing any better in the long run, though. Cohen expects a bigger lull than usual for the next several weeks before the last-minute holiday surge. Consumers have only so much to spend, he said, and the deals haven't been quite as good as they were the past few years.

But the jump-start on Black Friday is probably going to gain momentum in future years, he and other analysts say. In the battle for consumers, none of the national chains want to snooze and lose.

Walmart's midnight start for heavy discounts last year pressed many retailers to follow suit this year. Walmart, in turn, decided to kick off sales two hours earlier.

But holiday sales at many stores started much earlier, said Jeff Green, a retail consultant based in Phoenix, Ariz. Instead of waiting for Black Friday, retailers were at it in October, he said — and consumers responded. While Black Friday might once have been the day stores turned a profit for the year, Green thinks many went into the black before Thanksgiving this time.

"So much of the Christmas sales are being done earlier," he said.