Black Friday, the biggest US shopping "holiday," kicked off with expectations that lower gasoline prices and higher consumer confidence could mean better year-end retail sales than last year.
But there was little sign of the buying fever of years past, after many retailers started Black Friday sales early, turning Thursday's Thanksgiving Day holiday into what the industry has dubbed "Gray Thursday".
"Gray Thursday is cannibalizing from Black Friday," Chris Christopher, director of consumer economics at IHS Global Insight, said in a phone interview.
Christopher said that anecdotally he had heard that stores action was "relatively thin." Many customers have already taken advantage of heavy discounts in early November to get their shopping out of the way, he said.
And, according to the research firm's data, there will be about 10 million fewer people receiving a paycheck on Black Friday than last year. The median household income, adjusted for inflation, is about eight percent below its 2007 level, with most of the income growth seen by the top five percent of earners.
Big retail chains like Walmart, Target and Macy's opened their doors at 6:00 pm Thursday (0100 GMT Friday) in hopes of boosting their weekend sales, even before many Americans had finished the traditional turkey holiday feast.
Walmart said Friday that more than 22 million customers flocked to their stores on Thursday, the same as in 2013.
"Online shopping started while turkeys were still in the oven and yesterday was our second-highest online sales day ever -- topped only by Cyber Monday last year," said Laura Phillips, senior vice president of merchandising at Walmart, the world's largest retailer.
Target said the Thanksgiving weekend got off to "a strong early start" with the discount chain for the first time offering special Black Friday deals on Wednesday.
Shoppers were snapping up TVs, headphones and other electronics.
BestBuy's website went down intermittently Friday, with a message saying "We're sorry. BestBuy.com is currently unavailable. Check back soon."
The company explained that "a concentrated spike in mobile traffic triggered issues that led us to shut down BestBuy.com in order to take proactive measures to restore full performance."
The National Retail Federation forecasts more than 140.1 million shoppers for the Thanksgiving weekend Thursday through Sunday, slightly below last year's expectations survey.
"We are encouraged by what we've seen thus far with eager Thanksgiving Day and early Black Friday shoppers," said Matthew Shay, NRF chief executive on Friday.
New vehicle sales were expected to rev up during Black Friday deals. "Shoppers continue to return to the dealership as economic conditions remain favorable, with the unemployment rate at its lowest in six years and with consumer confidence nearing pre-recession levels," said Alec Gutierrez, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book.
- Falling gasoline prices dividend? -In addition to the improving economy and healthy job gains, consumers may see more money in their pockets to spend as gasoline prices fall, mostly due to declining crude oil prices.
As of Monday, the average price at the pump was $2.82 per gallon, 47 cents lower than a year ago, "and the lowest price heading into a Thanksgiving holiday since 2009," according to the Department of Energy.
IHS Global Insight's Christopher said that "even though consumer spending on gasoline is slightly less than three percent of disposable income, it plays a more significant role on consumer mood."
Christopher was forecasting this year's holiday retail sales will increase 4.2 percent year-over-year, compared with 3.1 percent gains in both 2012 and 2013.
He noted that last year's holiday retail sales, at $579.3 billion, were weighed down by the federal government shutdown in October and an unusually cold December.
Consumer Reports said that Americans' shop-'til-you-drop Black Friday fever may be fading, after a poll showed more than half of them saying they will not be shopping at all.
Fifty-three percent of respondents said they did not plan to shop anytime during the five-day stretch between Thanksgiving Day and Cyber Monday, the promoted online shopping day.
Among the 47 percent who plan to buy gifts, 38 percent will be doing so exclusively online compared with 30 percent who intend to shop strictly at stores.
"The change in shopping behavior from mall to mouse has a lot to do with convenience. People hate crowds. Men, in particular, are eschewing stores for the Internet," said Tod Marks, senior project editor at Consumer Reports.