It was Baltimore resident Dan McLellan's first Black Friday. And, despite his initial worries, it all went smoothly.
"My wife made me (show up), she's pregnant," McLellan, 43, said as he waited in the early evening at a Target store near his home.
Tasked with finding an iPad, McLellan texted his wife pictures of the packed line. Even though McLellan said he wasn't a big deal-hunter himself, he said he eventually caught the Black Friday spirit and felt an adrenaline rush as the store opened.
"It's kind of funny," he said. "You get that urge like you need to shop faster."
The frenzy of American shopping on Black Friday wasn't quite as action-packed as some years, as earlier opening times and advanced preparations by stores seemed to ease the anxiety that comes with the biggest shopping day of the year. Many large stores reported orderly waiting lines.
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"It's all about having a crowd management plan in place," said Target public relations spokesperson Jessica Stevens. This included making sure staff members were assigned to particular areas of the store and obtaining the extra security guards. Employees arrived around 7 p.m. and had a last team meeting to get prepared before the doors opened, Stevens said.
As the evening wore on, stores reported heavy shopping volume, even as midnight approached. Well over 100 million people are expected to shop during the four-day holiday weekend, and most of the big retail chains - Best Buy, Target, and Wal-Mart, to name a few - have increased security in place. Employees were also given crash courses in crowd control.
This year marks the five-year anniversary of a particularly notorious Black Friday: In 2008, a Wal-Mart worker was trampled to death in New York and two men died after shooting each other at a Toys R Us in Palm Desert, Calif.
The scene was orderly in Palm Desert this year, though. The only complaints were from people who said they had to rush through their Thanksgiving dinner in order to hit the stores.
Jason Goodman had hardly eaten four bites of his Thanksgiving dinner when it was time to leave for Target.
"I felt like I was rushing dinner," Goodman, 31, said. "I think Thanksgiving should be for Thanksgiving, and Black Friday should be for Black Friday."
In Clarksville, Ind., Gary, Magan and Travis Bowen finished dinner early enough to spend three hours in line at Toys "R" Us.
Shortly before the store opened at 5 p.m., dad Gary Bowen had one regret: "I didn't realize it was going to be this cold."
Cathy Cousins of New Albany, Ind., shopping for six grandkids, was among many in line for Skylanders action figures.
"I'd never heard of Skylanders," she said. "I have to Google everything now."
At a Best Buy store in Melbourne, Fla., Jared Vera, 16, wasn't gift shopping. He'd camped out with friends since Wednesday morning to get himself an Xbox 360. The orderly crowd surged through the doors at 6 p.m.
"It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, but I'd rather be sleeping at home in a bed," Vera said.
In Germantown, Md., Walmart opened quietly at 6 with just a small crowd -- but a long line soon snaked back and forth as the store filled to capacity and latecomers had to wait to get in.
Black Friday deals started as early as 6 a.m. Thursday, when Kmart opened its doors.
In Louisville, Pam McCurdy was in line outside Kmart at 4 a.m. with her son, daughter and daughter's boyfriend. "It kind of kicks off the Christmas season for me," she says. She planned to buy an Android tablet and flat-screen TV.
By 6:25 a.m., she was done shopping. "We've got it down to a science," McCurdy says. Estimated savings: $200.
Other retailers had evening openings: Wal-Mart and Best Buy kicked off Black Friday sales at 6 p.m., followed by the likes of Macy's, Target, Kohl's, J.C. Penney and Sears at 8 p.m. That's an hour earlier than last year,
At Target on Boston Street in Baltimore, a line of about 500 people stretched around the building. At 7:59 p.m., store employees called out to customers, reminding them to keep calm as the rushed in for a "doorbuster," a 50-inch TV.
Retailers lose a week of crucial time this holiday season. Thanksgiving was late and there are just four weeks until Christmas. Retailers are pushing deals earlier than ever -- some began with pre-Black Friday sales last weekend.
"All the days are basically blurring," says Brad Wilson, CEO of BradsDeals.com, a website that aggregates online deals and coupons. "Ultimately, the more important these days get to retailers, the more competitive they have to be to get our attention and the better deals we get."
Nearly a quarter of shoppers, 33 million people, would head to stores on Thanksgiving Day in search of those deals, according to the National Retail Federation.
Black Friday still reigns as the most popular kickoff to the holiday shopping season. That's when 97 million people will shop - nearly 70% of people who say they have shopping plans for Thanksgiving weekend, according to a retail federation survey.
The holiday season is the most important time of year for retailers. It can account for 20%, even 40%, of a retailer's annual sales, according to the retail federation, which expects sales in November and December to be up 3.9% this year. Last year, sales increased 3.5%.
In what has become an annual tradition, Eric Buckles was first in line with his wife and two children at 7:45 a.m. outside the Bass Pro Shop in Clarksville, Ind.
"Every year, we get up and go and make sure that we're back in time to have dinner," he says. "It's a good way to torture our children - roll them out of bed early in the morning."
It's also a good way to get Christmas shopping out of the way. "By the time Sunday night's over, we'll have bought everything for Christmas," Buckles says.
In Scottsdale, Ariz., Leslie Foldy was the first and only shopper at the Old Navy store when it opened at 9 a.m. local time. "I'm tucking in a little shopping before turkey," she says.
She planned to go home, cook a family dinner -- and be out shopping again about 8 a.m. Friday.
In St. Cloud, Minn., Marcus Weyh, 32, set up camp with his brother and a friend at 2 a.m. Wednesday outside Best Buy.
"My wife wasn't too happy about me missing Thanksgiving, but the deals are just too good to pass up," he said. "I'm getting a 55-inch LED TV for about 400 bucks. Ordinarily, that would probably cost about $1,200. That makes waiting out here worthwhile."
Despite temperatures in the low 20s -- more like 12 degrees with the wind chill -- Weyh and his cohorts were comfortable. They were inside a portable fish house, with a heater and recliners. And the store provided portable toilets. "That's the least we could do," general manager Matt Noska said.
For some shoppers, the social experience is almost as important as the shopping.
Allison Taylor arrived at a Toys "R" Us in Lafayette, La., Thanksgiving morning. She was soon joined by sisters Natalie Hidalgo and Megan Manuel, who wore matching "Team Black Friday" shirts.
"It's the thrill. It's fun," Taylor says. "You make friends in the line with people, and you really have a good time. By the time you are done, you are so delirious that everything is funny."
In Grand Chute, Wis., Stacie Raasch, 28, was first in line at Toys "R"Us. of Neenah, Wis. She decided to shake off the 20-degree cold by leading some of her fellow line-waiters in some Zumba exercises.
"It's just fun," she said. "I'm meeting new people and everybody can call me nuts."
Other than heavy post-holiday discounts, the days surrounding Thanksgiving are the best time for consumers to shop, Wilson says.
"It's absolutely a time for us as consumers to knock off as much of our shopping as possible," he says. "The game plan for consumers is if you want to go out, try to pick off the best 10 or 20 deals in stores. I'm talking the $99 TV at Walmart, the $199 iPad mini." Then head online, where there are more deals and you can shop on your own time.
"Don't stay at Walmart for six hours and buy a bunch of other stuff," Wilson says.
Eric Osborn, 31, got to Target in Melbourne to snag one of those top deals. As he waited with hundreds of people for the store to open, employees passed out snack bars and 16 coupons for a 50-inch TV for $229. He got No. 1 of 16.
Not everybody approves of the earlier-than ever shopping schedule -- not even some of those doing the shopping.
"I actually think it's a shame that they open on Thanksgiving now," said Merisel Luper, in line outside Best Buy in Asheville.
"I just think it takes the fun out of midnight shopping, or getting up at 1 a.m. to be there early," Luper said. ""I miss when you could just enjoy your Thanksgiving, then get up early and go shopping the next day. This is just a little sad. But, you know, here I am."
Asked what day Thanksgiving is each year, Katie Brenner's kids can barely wait to answer.
"I know this one!" says 6-year-old Alex Brenner, waiting in line Thursday afternoon at a Toys "R" Us store in Asheville, N.C.
"It's on the very fourth Wednesday, every year, on every November," she says. "You eat turkey and green beans, you go to sleep, then you go for big shopping."
Katie Brenner covers her daughter's ears and whispers.
"They don't even know most people celebrate Thanksgiving on Thursday," she says. "All the good stores open on Thanksgiving now, so we just have to celebrate a day early."
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Blake reports for the Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times. Contributing: Fola Akinnibi and Annika McGinnis, USA TODAY; Dominique Fong, The Desert Sun; Jana John, Jere Downs and Matt Frassica, The (Louisville) Courier-Journal; Andrew Ford, Florida Today; Peter Corbett, The Arizona Republic; Kevin Allenspach, St. Cloud (Minn.) Times
Hadley Malcolm and Casey Blake , USA TODAY