Opposed to shopping on Thanksgiving Day, Betty Allen of West Friendship waited until midnight to head to Walmart in Ellicott City for $2 DVDs and then shopped through the night without crowds to buy boots and clothing for her four children with stops at Kohl's, Target, Macy's and J.C. Penney.
"It has been different this year," said Allen. "I'm used to lining up outside and rushing in."
Black Friday, the traditional kickoff to the holiday retail season, drew smaller-than-usual hordes of bargain hunters in the Baltimore area, probably because earlier Thanksgiving sales and staggered "limited supply" discounts spread shoppers out. Some shoppers missed the frenzy, while others embraced the relative calm.
Gail Owens waited until 11 p.m. Thursday to head out with her daughter, niece and a friend. But most doorbusters — and the crowds that accompany them — happened while her family was eating Thanksgiving dinner.
"I like the hype," Owens, a federal worker from West Baltimore, said Friday morning while watching her daughter try on boots in J.C. Penney at the Mall in Columbia, after an all-night shopping spree at numerous stores. "When I got to Walmart, there was nobody there."
But the bargains — $4.50 pajamas at Walmart, for instance — have been better than ever, she said, a good thing because she has "less money to work with."
Facing fewer days between Thanksgiving and Christmas and tepid economic forecasts, retailers feel more pressure to lure shoppers in the holiday selling season that is so crucial to their bottom line. The number of people who expect to shop during Thanksgiving weekend this year dropped to around 140 million people from the 147 million who planned to shop last year, according to the National Retail Federation.
Shopping on Thanksgiving has grown more mainstream as retailers opened earlier and earlier after starting at midnight several years ago. This year Kmart, started holiday deals at 6 a.m. Thanksgiving Day, with other national chains opening in the late afternoon and early evening, among them Toys R Us, Best Buy, Kohl's, Target, Walmart, J.C. Penney, Boscov's and Macy's, which opened for the first time ever on Thanksgiving.
Deep discounts, especially in electronics, helped drive sales in the past two days for many big-box and department stores, Retail Metrics analysts said.
While more people now shop on Thanksgiving, the day's anticipated $1 billion in sales likely will pale in comparison to Black Friday, still projected to be the top-selling day of the season with some $10 billion in sales, according to retail traffic counter ShopperTrak. The firm expects holiday sales to rise 2.4 percent this year, a slower pace than last year's 3 percent gain.
"We see some pretty brisk sales and traffic today," Bill Martin, founder of ShopperTrak, said Friday. "It doesn't seem to be as hectic as we've seen in the past, probably because it is spread out."
The economy also may play a role. Consumer confidence remains low, and worried shoppers may be holding back.
David Clevenger of Lansdowne bought a few gifts while he was out at 5 a.m. Friday at Toys R Us, taking care of his mother and sister's shopping lists, but he's keeping a tight rein on his budget. He's not spending any more this year than he did last year.
"This economy's killing me," he said.
People seem to be more civil, too, because of the extra days and hours, one retail expert observed, though a few incidents of shoppers coming to blows over items were reported across the United States.
"That along with retailers doing a better job of organizing and stocking doorbusters while offering these same deals online at all hours of the day mean a more civilized shopping experience," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst with the NPD Group, who noted that stores with opening lines had a more normal pace within an hour.
Dana Hiett, making her second trip in two days to Walmart on Friday morning, said she doesn't miss the old days of shoppers rushing into stores as doors open to grab the hot toy of the year. Then again, she said, getting to stores at the right time for the right sale has become more hit or miss. For instance, the Roanoke, Va., resident, in town visiting her mother, was one of a few people lined up Thursday evening to buy a $249 iPod touch at Best Buy. But when her mother sent her to the Columbia Walmart on Friday morning for a large flat-screen TV for less than $300, she was out of luck.
"It seems like retailers have tried to stagger [deals] out as it got later to keep people coming out to the stores," and to limit lines, said Manolo Almagro, managing director for digital and retail technology for retail marketing firm TPN.
Tiffani Pringle of Randallstown said she doesn't mind fighting crowds, but she likes the ebbs and flows in the new Black Thursday and Friday and doesn't feel rushed anymore.
"The earlier start absolutely has helped," said Pringle as she took a break Friday morning in one of Arundel Mills' massage chairs after 12 hours of shopping. "It's much more relaxed."
Even though the mall opened early, Friday was more like a busy weekend day at Arundel Mills. There was plenty of parking early on, but by early afternoon the lot was full.
Roxanne Cooper, 39, considers herself a Black Friday veteran and started her annual shopping spree in the early afternoon at the mall, only to find crowded registers at some of her favorite shops. "We thought it'd be better now than it would have been earlier," she said.
Catrese and Rick Turner said they are fed up with Black Thursday and deals at 6 p.m. that hit right during holiday dinner. Standing in a largely empty H.H. Gregg store in Hanover at midmorning Friday, the husband and wife shook their heads over a deal they could have gotten elsewhere the day before, if they'd been willing to interrupt Thanksgiving. The 32-inch flat-screen televisions for $98 at Walmart were long gone when they got there at 5 a.m. Friday. Instead, they bought a 24-inch TV at H.H. Gregg for $129.
Before Black Friday became a two-day spree, "it was stressful, but it was fun," said Catrese Turner, 41, a surgical coordinator who lives in Upper Marlboro. "They really just messed Thanksgiving up."
This year was the first Black Friday for the Target store in Canton, which opened in October. Manager Matt Boylan said the line was small at 6 p.m. Thursday, but by 15 minutes before the 8 p.m. opening, "it was just wrapped around the building. ... It was pretty impressive."
The 100 doorbuster tickets for televisions "went really fast," he said, but "it seems like the same amount of people, stretched out" over two days, he said. "With a two-day event, it's not as crazy as it used to be."
Crowd-control measures such as tickets handed to people in line have cut down on the running and jockeying that have been Black Friday hallmarks.
It remains unclear whether the longer hours will help retailers' bottom lines.
"They will probably have some successes," Almagro said. "They want to get people to the store, that's what it's all about. … Even though they have a budget, they get caught up in the moment and may buy something extra."