Retailers were hoping for more shoppers like Shawn Elzia as the annual Black Friday bargain stampede marked the unofficial start of what is widely expected to be a middling holiday shopping season.
The Brooklyn, New York teacher, one of hundreds of thousands of shoppers jostling for deals around the country, said he ended up spending about 25 percent more than he planned, even while worrying about the state of the economy.
I did not expect such deals, the 33-year old said as he left a Macy's store in Jersey City, New Jersey clutching bags full of clothing for himself and his family.
It's slashed down to the bones, he said. There were some great discounts if you showed up early.
Even as eager shoppers emerged from stories lugging big-screen TVs and bags full of video games and toys, it was far from certain that stretched consumers will be pulling out their wallets for much more than the best deals this year.
Americans are still worried about jobs, still worried about the economy, they're still worried about debt of the country, said Mike Thielmann, group executive vice president at J.C. Penney.
I don't think you can take for granted that they've got more money in their pocket or they're interested in buying this year or you can take your prices up, he said. I don't think our economy or the consumer confidence is there yet.
(For a graphic on shopping trends see, http://link.reuters.com/tag35s)
Shopper-related injuries were popular topics on social networks such as Twitter. A shopper at a Los Angeles-area Walmart used pepper spray on a throng of shoppers and there was a shooting in a Walmart parking lot in the Oakland area.
In 2008, a security officer working at a Walmart on Black Friday was trampled to death by a crowd.
Competition among the retailers was fierce as it was among shoppers, with some stores pushing their openings and specials up to Thanksgiving night on Thursday.
The term Black Friday is generally accepted to refer to the time when retailers start to turn profitable for the year, although the phrase's origin is unclear.
What is clear is that while it is the busiest day of the year in terms of store traffic, it does not always mean that sales will soar for the season.
Despite brisk sales right after Thanksgiving in 2008 and 2009, total holiday season sales fell as the recession gripped the country.
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 expects sales for the full November-December holiday season to rise just 2.8 percent, well below the pace of last year when sales rose 5.2 percent.
Shares of most retailers were flat to up slightly in early trading on Friday.
LUXURY STORES BIG WINNERS
Luxury chains such as Saks Inc and those catering to lower-income shoppers, such as dollar stores, are expected to do well this shopping season. Those in the middle 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. People are looking for the big ticket item, which is where they're going to get the most bang for their buck.
Overall, retail executives and analysts expect a more competitive shopping season than in 2010. Unemployment remains at 9 percent, European debt woes are weighing on the stock market, and consumer confidence remains spotty.
Walmart, Gap Inc's Old Navy, and Kmart, owned by Sears Holdings, were among the few retailers open on Thanksgiving day.
Walmart began offering Black Friday deals at 10 p.m. on Thursday, while Target, electronics chain Best Buy and department store chains Macy's and Kohl's opened at midnight, their earliest starts ever.
Marta Marchado, 46, who works in construction, arrived at The Mall at Prince Georges in Hyattsville, Maryland at 4 a.m. to buy a television.
Target has good prices, she said, almost too tired to speak as she sat on a bench in the mall courtyard. Her boyfriend was fast asleep as he leaned on her shoulder.
Other retailers, including J.C. Penney 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 $200 Sharp 42-inch LCD television, Play Station 3 games and other items he wanted.
This year, the heavy push by retailers got an even earlier start, as chains 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, though, said they felt as if the economy was back in a recession, making them reluctant to spend.
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 midnight opening of a Target store in Farmingdale, New York.
Those midnight openings drew online petition protests from store workers, and there were shoppers too who said they 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 and 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 in New York.
Outside, 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.
(Reporting by Dhanya Skariachan, Liana B. Baker and Phil Wahba in New York, Mihir Dalal in Jersey City, New Jersey, Jessica Wohl in Chicago, and Diane Bartz in Hyattsville, Maryland; Writing by Brad Dorfman in Milwaukee; Editing by Jon Loades-Carter, Phil Berlowitz)