The holiday shopping season kicked off much earlier this year, as at least a dozen national retail chains from Macy's to Gap to Target opened their stores on Thanksgiving Day. The sales continued through Friday. Wal-Mart says tech gadgets were among popular items.
The day after Thanksgiving, called Black Friday, is typically the biggest shopping day of the year. For a decade, it had been considered the official start of the holiday buying season. But in the past few years, retailers have pushed opening times into Thanksgiving night. They've also pushed up discounting that used to be reserved for Black Friday into early November, which has led retail experts to question whether the Thanksgiving openings will steal some of Black Friday's thunder.
The holiday openings came despite threatened protests from workers' rights groups, which are opposed to employees working on the holiday instead of spending the day with family.
Overall, the National Retail Federation expects retail sales to be up 4 percent to $602 billion during the last two months of the year. That's higher than last year's 3.5 percent growth, but below the 6 percent pace seen before the recession.
Analysts expect sales to be generated at the expense of profits, as retailers will likely have to do more discounting to get people into stores.
Here's how the start of the holiday shopping season is playing out. All times are ET.
Friday, 6:30 a.m.: Tech gadgets among best-sellers at Wal-Mart
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said that best sellers for its Thanksgiving sale included big-screen TVs, Apple's iPad Minis, laptops, Microsoft's Xbox One, Sony's PlayStation 4 and the game "Call of Duty: Ghosts."
The world's largest retailer said that customers also bought 2.8 million towels, 300,000 bicycles and 1.9 million dolls.
Wal-Mart started its deals at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving, two hours earlier than last year. The retailer said 1 million customers took advantage of its one-hour guarantee program, which allows shoppers who are inside a Wal-Mart store within one hour of a doorbuster sales event to buy that product and either take it home that day or by Christmas. That program started a year ago with three items and was expanded to 21 this year.
For the first time this year, customers were offered wristbands for popular products, allowing them to shop while they waited for deals.
— Anne D'Innocenzio, AP Retail Writer, New York
— Friday, 5:45 a.m.: Don't think big store chains are conceding to Amazon. AP's Mae Anderson and Anne D'Innocenzio take a look.
Amazon has managed to attract customers from big store chains such as Wal-Mart and Best Buy with low prices and convenient shipping. Now, stores are fighting to get customers back.
Stores are doing such things as matching the lower prices on Amazon and offering the same discounts in stores as on their websites. For its part, Amazon.com Inc. is giving customers the option to pick up items at physical locations and adding Sunday delivery.
There's a lot at stake for both sides. Amazon has built a following, but wants to grow its business around the world. Meanwhile, brick-and-mortar retailers struggle to keep shoppers from using their stores as showrooms to test out and try on items before buying them for less on Amazon.
The holiday season ups the ante. Both online and brick-and-mortar retailers can make up to 40 percent of their annual revenue in November and December. And this year, they're competing for the growing number of shoppers who are as comfortable buying online as in stores.
Read more at:
— Mae Anderson and Anne D'Innocenzio, AP Retail Writers, New York
— Thursday, 11 p.m.: J. C. Penney's store in Manhattan was busy with bargain shoppers buying discounted sweaters, bed sheets and luggage, but the store was not packed. Among the doorbuster deals were 50 percent off on all fashion silver jewelry. The struggling department needs a solid holiday shopping season to help recover from a botched up transformation plan.
The company has brought back sales events and basic merchandise like khakis in forgiving fits. To kick off the holiday shopping season, Penney opened at 8 p.m on Thanksgiving. That was much earlier than the 6 a.m. opening on Black Friday a year ago.
Tamara Robinson, 37, from Brooklyn, said she has been buying more at Penney in the last few months. Robinson was throwing bed sheets and comforters into her cart at Penney and planned to spend about $200 at the department store on Thursday. She then planned to go to Macy's and Best Buy.
"I am going to shop all night," she said.
— Thursday, 8 p.m.: Crowds of cheering shoppers pushed through the doors at the flagship Macy's Herald Square in New York City when it opened.
About 15,000 shoppers were at Macy's right before the doors opened, estimated Terry Lundgren, CEO, president and chairman of the department store chain. Last year, the store had 11,000 people right before the midnight opening.
Lundgren, who was at the entrance, told The Associated Press that the retailer knew it had to open when it found out other competitors were planning to open on Thanksgiving night. He also said it received positive feedback from its employees. "We're a competitive group," he said. "It's very clear they (the shoppers) want to be here at 8 p.m."
The store was featuring 375 doorbusters, up from last year's 200. Some of the deals included $79.99 jackets originally priced from $195 to $250, and cashmere sweaters for $39, marked down from 129.
Shelby Wheatley, 17, was with her mother, her mother's friend and her best friend, who all traveled from Orlando, Fla. Wheatley was looking for a prom dress and wanted to buy it in New York.
"I did Black Friday — but never Thursday — and never in New York," she said.
As for Thanksgiving, the group celebrated early with family last week.
"We just had dinner at TJI Fridays," she added.
— Anne D'Innocenzio, Retail Writer, New York
—Thursday, just before 8 p.m.: At Macy's in the Manhattan borough of New York City, bargain shoppers were grabbing discounted coats, perfume and handbags. It was mayhem in the shoe department with shoppers pushing and shoving each other to grab boxes of cold weather boots, discounted by 50 percent, that were stacked high on tables. One item catching people's attention: Bearpaw boots that resembled Uggs. They were priced at $34.
"This is my first Black Friday, and I don't particularly like it," said Tammy Oliver, 45, who had a box of Bearpaw boots under her arm, a gift for herself. "But I did get some good deals."
Denise Anderson, 49, along with her husband and 16-year-old daughter, were visiting Manhattan from Fayetteville, Ark. They arrived in Manhattan on Saturday and had spent $3,000 to $4,000 on themselves. She has done Black Friday shopping back at home but wanted to do it in New York.
"We're people watching," she said. "We wanted to see the craziness."
— Anne D'Innocenzio, Retail Writer, New York
— Thursday, 6 p.m.: An hour after its 6 p.m. opening, Best Buy at Union Square in New York City was bustling, with big TVs, Kindle e-book readers and laptops being popular purchases. Buying a TV on sale seemed to be most people's priority.
"My friend is chewing me out right now for not being there," said Rodney Bernard, 39, a writer in the Bronx. Instead of being at his friends Thanksgiving celebration he was at Best But. "But I really needed a TV."
He saw a deal in the paper for an Insignia 39-inch TV for $169, but ended up buying a more expensive 40-inch Samsung TV after a store salesman said he could get $20 off if he applied for a Best Buy credit card. He got the TV for $399 and it was originally $700 or $800.
Meanwhile, his friend doesn't approve of shopping on Thanksgiving. "He's upset with myself right now. He feels offended and is like don't even come by."
Bernard agrees but thinks it's OK to shop if you really need something.
Fortunately he says, his parents and immediate family are celebrating Thanksgiving on the 30th because several people had to work today.
"It's not like I lost something, I'll be celebrating."
— Mae Anderson, Retail Writer, New York
— Thursday, 4:30 p.m.: At Best Buy in New York City, 70 people are in line before the 6 p.m. opening. A popular deal was the Microsoft Windows Surface tablet on sale at $199 from $350.
Jamal Afridi, 35, a truck driver from Utah but living temporarily in New York, was in line to buy a 39-inch TV for $160 from $299. He tried to buy it online but it was sold out.
"I checked over the last two days, I wouldn't have come out otherwise," he said. He was also interested in the Surface tablet deal, though. "This was the best deal if the year," he said.
He doesn't mind earlier hours on Thanksgiving. "I don't have to get up early in the morning," he said. "Who cares it's just another day, I'll eat later."
— Mae Anderson, Retail Writer, New York
—Thursday, 5:41 p.m.: A Kmart store in the Manhattan borough of New York City was packed with people shopping for clothing and holiday decor items. The discounter, whose parent is Sears Holdings Corp., opened at 6 a.m. and planned to stay open for 41 hours straight. Clothing was marked down from 30 percent to 50 percent.
Adriana Tavaraz, 51, from the Bronx, who had just finished work at a travel agency at around 4 p.m., spent $105 on ornaments, Santa hats and other holiday decor for herself and her family at Kmart. She saved about 50 percent. But Tavarez said her holiday budget was tight because she was grappling with higher costs like food and monthly rent, which rose $100 to $1,700 this year.
"I struggle a lot," said Tavaraz, who started saving for holiday presents in June and planned to spend a total of $200 for holiday presents. "Nowadays, you have to think about what you spend. You have to think about tomorrow."
As for celebrating Thanksgiving, she planned to have her family over for dinner at 8 p.m.
"Everything is ready," she said.
—Anne D'Innocenzio, Retail Writer, New York
— Thursday afternoon: Pizza Hut has offered to rehire the manager of a northern Indiana restaurant who was fired over his refusal to open up on Thanksgiving Day.
Tony Rohr said he has worked at the Elkhart restaurant since starting as a cook more than 10 years but was told to write a letter of resignation after his refusal. He said he declined in a meeting with his boss and instead wrote a letter explaining that he believed the company should care more about its employees.
"I said, 'Why can't we be the company that stands up and says we care about our employees and they can have the day off?'" Rohr told WSBT-TV (http://bit.ly/1bZovDT ) of South Bend, Ind.
Rohr said he was thinking about the other workers at the restaurant.
"Thanksgiving and Christmas are the only two days that they're closed in the whole year, and they're the only two days that those people are guaranteed to have off and spend it with their families," he said.
Plano, Texas-based Pizza Hut issued a statement Wednesday saying it respects an employee's right to not work on the holiday and that the store owner has agreed to reinstate Rohr.
— Associated Press