After weeks of "Black Friday" sales pitches, the real thing is finally here.
Retailers are ushering in the traditional kickoff of the U.S. holiday shopping season on Friday with expanded hours, deep discounts and online deals. Bargain-hungry shoppers are giving them a strong early turnout.
The crescendo follows a weeks-long push to get shoppers to open their wallets with early deals. Many stores had trotted out the "Black Friday" label on sales as far back as October.
In a bid to grab shoppers earlier, a number of stores including Old Navy, Toys R Us and Sears opened on Thanksgiving Day. Toys R Us was counting on getting an extra boost by opening 24 hours straight, starting at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving.
Patricial Lopez, 32, a receptionist from Queens, said she was in line at Toys R Us in New York's Times Square Thursday night to "burn off the Turkey." The earlier hours were an enticement.
"I thought, good, we'll come here and I won't have to go tomorrow." But she still plans to get up at 6 to hit more sales at Queens Mall. Lopez said she feels better about her finances.
"The economy got people a little scared so they started to save," she said. "I think I feel a little better this year than last year. I had just started with my job but now I'm more advanced. I feel a little better now."
Diehards started lining up at a Target on Chicago's North side at 10 p.m. Thursday, and by the time doors opened at 4, the line was almost 600 people deep.
Lots of people said they were were buying gifts for themselves.
"I would not go out in the cold for family," joked Kat Reyngikd, 35, who wanted a 40-inch Westinghouse TV on sale for $299.
The fierce battle for shoppers' wallets promises savings for those willing and able to buy amid an economy that's still worrying many.
The good news is that retailers are heading into the season with some momentum after a solid start to November. Shoppers who can afford it are buying more nonessentials, like jewelry and luxury goods. That's helping to lift their spirits about the holiday season, which is expected to generate revenue gains modestly higher than a year ago.
"It's a dogfight between retail companies," said Chris Donnelly, a senior executive in consulting group Accenture's retail practice. "This year is the first time that there's a little more money in the marketplace so they're being more aggressive about getting the last dollar. At the end of the day, they're going to outweigh people who are pulling back."
Still, nearly 15 million are unemployed, and concerns about job security still cloud consumer confidence. Spending may be picking up but has not returned to pre-recession levels.
So, retailers are pushing deals on basics as well as offering discounts on more deluxe items, from bigger flat-panel TVS to more elaborate play sets.
Kohl's, which planned to open at 3 a.m. Friday, one hour earlier than a year ago, is promoting diamond bracelets and diamonds heart pendants for $99 each, down from $500 or $575. The store is also offering 50 percent off all toys.
Thanksgiving weekend is huge for retailers. In recent years, Black Friday has been the busiest shopping day of the year, according to data from research firm ShopperTrak. But it doesn't necessarily provide a complete forecast of holiday sales. In fact, shoppers seem to be procrastinating more every year, so the fate of the holiday season is increasingly down to the last few days.
Retailers do study buying patterns for the weekend to discern shoppers' mindset. This year, that means taking the measure on their willingness to spend just a little bit more.
Last year, the Thanksgiving shopping weekend accounted for 12.3 percent of overall holiday revenue, according to ShopperTrak. Black Friday made up about half of that.
Shoppers swarmed Washington Square, a mall in Tigard, Ore., that opened at midnight for the first time.
Jennifer Mishler and her mother, Lynn Bieberdorf, lined up at the mall's J.C. Penney at Washington Square mall in Tigard, Ore.
Bieberdorf said she also had finished most of her holiday shopping, picking up gifts for her grandchildren in October and November. Tonight they were looking for some stocking stuffers and other small items.
"Other than that, it's to enjoy the madness," Mishler said.
AP Business Writers Mae Anderson in New York, Ashley Heher in Chicago and Sarah Skidmore in Portland, Ore., contributed to this report.