The great turkey day shopping experiment apparently worked.
From coast to coast, shoppers in droves on Thanksgiving night proved they were more than willing to step away from the pumpkin pie and turkey drumsticks and head for the malls. From Sears to Target to Wal-Mart, major U.S. retailers threw open their doors as early as 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving night.
The Thursday opening eased the crowds and chaos that have been traditional trimmings on Black Friday mornings of years past.
"Retailers were happy. Traffic was up; consumers came back with a vengeance," said retail analyst Marshal Cohen, of NPD Group in New York, who had a Black Friday team monitoring consumer traffic outside 16 malls, from the Westfield Galleria in Roseville to New York's upscale Roosevelt Field on Long Island.
"Retailers accomplished their mission," he said. "The consumer got what they wanted – a good deal – and the sport of shopping increased to a new dimension."
But Cohen added a dollop of caution for retailers: "In many cases, just because you have a good Black Friday, that doesn't mean you'll have a good holiday." He said the "front-loading" of the two-day Thanksgiving/Black Friday shopping could drain consumers' appetite for continued spending through December.
Nevertheless, for the intrepid "sport shoppers" who enjoy the thrill of Black Friday, there was no stopping.
They included Amanda Templeton of El Dorado Hills. By 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving night, the 18-year-old had finished her Target purchases – dinner plates, Tupperware and baby gear – and was waiting at Starbucks for the rest of her family's all-female shopping brigade.
Earlier on Thanksgiving, they'd scoured the ads and plotted a plan of attack for scouting the best deals. Templeton and a sister were assigned to Target, while her mom and another sister headed to a Walmart.
The 18-year-old, who planned to grab a few hours sleep at home before heading out again at 4 a.m. Friday, said Black Friday shopping is a long-standing household tradition.
"Yeah, we're that crazy family," she said, sitting with two red-and-white shopping bags. "We try to get as much as we can with the sales."
Some store employees and Thanksgiving traditionalists were appalled by the early openings. But consumers apparently gave the concept a thumbs-up.
"We are busier this year than we were last year," El Dorado Hills Target store manager Brad Scott said Thursday night, adding that the first customers were in line at 3 a.m. Thanksgiving Day.
On Friday morning, crowds were light at Downtown Plaza. At Arden Fair mall and the Roseville Galleria, the parking lots were full but not overwhelmed.
"Traffic was steady through the morning," said Stephanie Ringey, marketing director at Roseville's Westfield Galleria, where stores opened at varying hours from 11 p.m. Thanksgiving through 6 a.m. Friday. While hard numbers weren't available, she said, "a lot of our retailers are reporting numbers on par or above Black Friday in 2011."
Cohen's team of 16 shopper-trackers across the country, including one at Westfield Galleria in Roseville, counted not only consumer traffic but the number of bags each shopper carried. Compared with last year, Cohen said, the admittedly unscientific shopping-bag-per-consumer numbers appeared to be up between 4 percent and 5 percent.
"What you're seeing is a consumer who's more optimistic, more free-spending and in a spending mood," he said.
Auburn resident Amanda Warden and three family members started their shopping day at the Roseville Galleria at 5 a.m. Nearly three hours later, they showed off their spoils: a wire cart stacked with bags from Aeropostale, Justice and American Eagle. Still in their shopping sights: Macy's and Banana Republic.
To hear Warden tell it, the Black Friday sales take on mythic overtones.
"They lure us," Warden said. "It's like the tale of the Odyssey with the sirens."
Some employees of big retailers complained that their family holiday was being sacrified in the competition for consumer dollars. In an online petition created by a Target employee in Corona, the giant retailer was urged to "Take the High Road and Save Thanksgiving" by not opening its doors so employees could have the day off. More than 372,000 signed it.
And at Wal-Mart, some workers and their supporters used the Black Friday hoopla to draw attention to their grievances. Outside two local Walmarts, groups of employees, labor union members and community activists gathered as part of a nationwide protest to support more full-time hours and against what they describe as retaliation for workers' efforts to unionize.
For two hours Friday morning at the Placerville store, nearly 100 Wal-Mart employees and their supporters chanted and waved handwritten placards calling for full-time hours and other benefits. About 30 picketers also demonstrated outside the West Sacramento Walmart.
"Wal-Mart comes into a community. They promise living wages and affordable health care," said Barbara Collins Andridge of Placerville, a Wal-Mart employee for seven years. She recently received a 40-cent raise to $12.05 an hour.
"This is about making Wal-Mart accountable for what they say. They need to stop making promises, step up to the plate and do what they say," Collins said.
Some shoppers Friday were not sympathetic to the picketers' message. "This is ridiculous," Stephanie Vasquez of Placerville shouted from the Walmart parking lot. "Do you know how long I've been looking for a job?"
Two years, she said, answering her own question. She vowed to apply to Wal-Mart for a job.
Company spokesman David Tovar released a statement Friday saying the number of nationwide protests – pegged by supporters at 1,000 – were "grossly exaggerated," and that "the large majority of protesters aren't even Wal-Mart workers."
Tovar said Wal-Mart had its "best Black Friday ever" and the number of employees who missed their scheduled Black Friday shift was 60 percent lower than last year.
Some national retailers steered clear of controversy, remaining closed on the holiday itself. On its website, JCPenney announced it was "honoring the American tradition of Thanksgiving by keeping our stores closed on this special day." Instead, it said, its 6 a.m. Black Friday opening "means bargain hunters can sleep off the turkey and still get great deals."