|Some women didn't bother getting dressed to shop Friday morning at The Shops at Willow Bend in Plano, Texas.
NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
The first frenzied wave of early bargain hunters pushed and shoved their way into stores across the nation Black Friday, but industry watchers said it remains to be seen if the buying momentum holds going into the weekend.
Shoppers gathered in the dark at mall parking lots on the day after Thanksgiving, one of the most important days in American retailing that marks the kickoff to the holiday gift-buying season.
The day after Thanksgiving is dubbed 'Black Friday' because it's when retailers are said to finally move out of the red, representing losses, and into the black, symbolizing profits.
"Black Friday is like a national phenomenon," said Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst with market research firm NPD Group. "The nice thing this year is that there's a lot of mall store traffic very early and people are holding lots of bags. So they're not just window shopping. They're actually buying."
"The odd thing is that the initial rush in some stores has dissipated," Cohen added. "I think the shopping rush could taper off over the weekend."
Ellen Tolley, a National Retail Federation (NRF) spokeswoman, disagreed.
"It's normal to see surges in traffic," Tolley said. "It's important to remember that some people are working today and could decide to shop later or on the weekend."
The NRF estimates that up to 130 million consumers will shop over a combined three-day period.
|Holiday sales are expected to grow between 4 to 6 percent this year. CNN's Allan Chernoff takes a closer look.
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Said Tolley, "These discounts are too good to pass up. But we think that these are planned sales and not at the expense of retailers' profits."
At a Wal-Mart store in Alpharetta, Ga. consumers took advantage of a five-hour "blitz sale" in the morning to buy electronics such as flatscreen TVs and DVD players, toys, clothing and kitchen appliances, according to company spokesman Gus Whitcomb.
"We've had a good crowd. People are grabbing the deals," said Whitcomb. "But talking to our consumers we have to note that gas prices and heating bills are still at the back of their minds even as they shop." Wal-Mart has said it will not break out sales numbers for Black Friday and the weekend.
Shop at the crack of dawn
Malls and big-box stores opened as early as 5 a.m. local time, offering huge discounts on coveted items.
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"There were lines three to four people deep for about a 100 yards outside Sears and KB Toys at 5 a.m.," said Jeff Odom, marketing director with Hamilton Place in Chattanooga, one of Tennessee's largest malls. It looks like this year people are out much earlier than last year."
|The Hamilton Place Mall parking lot near full capacity at 10:00 a.m. on Black Friday.
A similar scene was reported at the Fairlane Town Center Mall in Dearborn, Mich.
"The mall opened its doors at 5:00 a.m. but there were already about 600 people waiting at each entrance," said Karen MacDonald, spokeswoman for mall operator Taubman Centers.
MacDonald said the KB Toys at Fairlane opened at 5 a.m. "They already sold out of Karaoke, Plug & Play, Dora Explorer House and the Cotton Candy maker by 5:30 a.m," she said.
In New York's Times Square, an estimated 2,500-3,000 shoppers jammed the huge Toys "R" Us flagship store to grab whatever bargains they could (click here for related story).
Some malls offered unusual promotions to lure early birds, and the Target discount chain set up a wake-up call service featuring recorded celebrity callers such as rapper/actor Ice-T and model Heidi Klum.
In addition to the big crowds, retailers enjoyed one other big break: the weather. Clear skies and seasonably cool temperatures are expected across most of the nation Friday, with precipitation only in scattered areas. However, rainier weather is forecast along the East Coast for the remainder of the weekend.
CNN.com: Planning is key to shopping success
Black Friday, also seen as a kick-off to the holiday shopping season, ranks among the top five busiest shopping days of the year. Last year, it even topped Christmas Eve to take the No. 1 spot.
"This is a great day and the crowds are the best that I've seen yet," said manager Bill Littlejohn, manager of the J.C. Penney (Research) store at the Hamilton Place Mall.
Littlejohn said home accessories and clothing were doing extremely well for the retailer.
Sears' New York district manager John Ford said customers were eagerly buying goods priced at discounts of 50 to 60 percent off.
"I've seen some people grab an armful of goods, especially sweaters," said Ford. "Consumer electronics and home appliances are selling very well.
Ford said he wasn't too concerned that the Friday rush would taper off heading into the weekend. "We have something else brewing for tomorrow to get the customers back," he said.
Unlike last year, when shoppers missed out on the big bargains and bought seasonal merchandise that was near full price, consumers this year were treated to deep discounts as early as the first weekend in November.
Industry analysts already anticipate more aggressive promotions this year. While that bodes well for consumers, it's a riskier bet for retailers because steep discounts that spur sales also erode profits.
It's all in the cards
Visa, the world's largest payment brand, said that based on the volume of credit and debit card transactions going through its systems today, initial trends indicate a better start to Black Friday compared to last year, according to spokesman Paul Cohen.
"When all the numbers are counted, consumers could have given retailers an early holiday present," Cohen said. "Last year Black Friday spending on our cards totaled $3.6 billion. We could cross $4 billion this year."
|A Chilean family with bags of stuff from Toys "R" Us in New York early Friday.
The National Retail Federation (NRF), the industry's largest trade group, expects total sales for the November-December shopping period to grow 4.5 percent to $219.9 billion, softer than last year's increase of 5.1 percent. The consensus among analysts is that total spending for the two months will grow about 4 percent.
"My personal picks for standout performers today include Target, Federated's Macy's division, Home Depot, Lowe's, Wal-Mart, Toys 'R Us, Old Navy, Kohl's and J.C. Penney," said Bernard Sands' analyst Richard Hastings.
Said Hastings, "Wal-Mart instantly undercut the competition on DVDs with their circular ad for $3.88 each, compared to Best Buy's advertised special of five DVDs for $25. The Home Depot has some unbelievable deals, including a Ryobi drill at only $9.99."
The two-month period together can represent as much as 50 percent of sales and profit for merchants.