The mad dash extended across the Atlantic, where a woman was injured in Northern Ireland as shoppers rushed to get their hands on deals during a day of sales modeled on what's known in the U.S. as Black Friday.
In the United States, the crowds were mostly orderly, though there were reports of shoplifting, and a fight broke out at a parking lot outside a Wal-Mart in Virginia.
Retailers have been pushing opening times earlier in recent years, so the early-morning Friday crowds now are seen the day before, on Thanksgiving night. The name Black Friday'' comes from the period when retailers traditionally turn a profit, or move out of the red and into the black.
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 agreed, saying they believe the holiday is meant to be spent with family and friends.
That didn't stop others from showing up at stores well before dawn.
We like to shop this time of night,'' said Rosanne Scrom as she left the Target store in New York state at 5 a.m. Friday.
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.
In rural Virginia, a dispute in a parking lot turned violent, with one man throwing a punch and another cutting the man with a knife and brandishing a rifle. The fight outside a Wal-Mart sent panicked shoppers scattering.
The mayhem in Belfast occurred at the British supermarket chain Asda _ owned by Wal-Mart _ which had been advertising its Black Friday deals throughout the U.K. The Northern Ireland Ambulance Service said it took a woman with an arm injury to the hospital.
In Seattle, Michael Wiggins stood in a crowd of shoppers trying to sell a $2 newspaper that supports the causes of homeless and low-income residents. The 50-year-old once was homeless himself.
Wiggins said it was sad to see people spending to potentially put themselves in debt.
How are you getting ahead'' Wiggins said. ``Why are you killing yourself for a pair of underwear''
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 were saying early Friday that the holiday shopping season had a successful start.
Store sales numbers won't be available until Saturday. The National Retail Federation said 140 million people planned to shop during the four-day holiday weekend.
IBM Benchmark, which tracks e-commerce for 800 retailers, said online sales on Thanksgiving were up 19.7 percent from last year. Online sales on Black Friday rose 9 percent, based on preliminary data