About 15,000 people waited for the flagship Macy's in New York City's Herald Square when it opened at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving. It was the most ever, up from 11,000 last year.
''It's unbelievable,'' said Terry Lundgren, Macy's CEO. ''Clearly people are in the shopping mood.''
Across the country, the frenzy continued overnight and through the morning of Black Friday, which until recently had been considered the official start to the holiday shopping season and the biggest shopping day of the year. It was named Black Friday because that was traditionally when retailers turned a profit, or moved out of the red and into the black.
But in the past few years, retailers have pushed opening times into Thanksgiving night. They've also moved to discounting in early November, instead of waiting until Black Friday.
The earlier openings and sales were met with some resistance. Some workers' rights groups had planned protests on both Thanksgiving and Black Friday because they opposed having retail employees miss family meals at home. Some shoppers had said they would not venture out on Thanksgiving because they believe it's a sacred holiday meant to spend with family and friends.
Curtis Akins, 51, sat on a bench at 5 a.m. Friday as his wife looked for deals at a mall in Atlanta's northern suburbs.
''I think it's going to end because it's taking away from the traditional Thanksgiving,'' he said of the Black Friday tradition.
But that sentiment didn't stop others from taking advantage of the earlier openings and sales.
''We like to shop this time of night ... We're having a ball,'' said Rosanne Scrom as she left the Target store in Clifton Park, New York, at 5 a.m. Friday.
It's unclear whether or not the early openings will lead shoppers to spend more over the two days or simply spread sales between the two days. Last year, sales on Thanksgiving were $810 million last year, an increase of 55 percent from the previous year as more stores opened on the holiday, according to Chicago research firm ShopperTrak. But sales dropped 1.8 percent to $11.2 billion on Black Friday, though it still was the biggest shopping day last year.
Sales figures for this year's Thanksgiving and Black Friday will trickle out in the next couple days, but some big chains already are proclaiming early Friday morning that the start to the holiday shopping season had gotten off to a successful start.
Most Wal-Mart stores are open 24 hours, but the world's largest retailer started its holiday shopping sales events at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving, two hours earlier than last year. Wal-Mart said that customers bought 2.8 million towels, two million TVs, 1.4 million tablets, 300,000 bicycles and 1.9 million dolls.
Rival Target, which opened at an hour earlier this year at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving, also said that traffic starting in the early morning hours of Thanksgiving on Target.com and at its stores later in the day was ''strong.''