NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. shoppers took advantage of retailers offering a Thursday night start to the traditional post-Thanksgiving holiday shopping season, lining up at stores to get deals on electronics and other items or to just see what the fuss was about.
"I like watching the insanity, honestly," Jon Stroker, 40, of Littleton, New Hampshire, said after spending about $280 at a Walmart store in town and taking advantage of the retailer's 8 p.m. Thursday start of "Black Friday" deals.
This year, Target Corp joined Wal-Mart Stores Inc and Gap Inc in being open at least part of the day on Thursday and some retailers will be open throughout the day, a trend that began to take hold in 2011.
Wal-Mart's U.S. discount stores, which have been open on Thanksgiving Day since 1988, offered some "Black Friday" deals at 8 p.m. local time and special deals on some electronics at 10 p.m. Target has moved its opening from midnight to 9 p.m. on Thursday and Toys R Us is opening at 8 p.m.
"It's a recognition that retailers need to be more aggressive and want to show their physical stores are important," Moody's senior analyst Charles O'Shea said.
While he didn't see enormous crowds out in Vauxhall, New Jersey, he did see about 15 people lined up already at a Best Buy, which opens at midnight. At a Target in Westbury, only two shoppers were in line for a 9 p.m. opening. Still, for retailers, any crowd could make the effort worth it.
"It's a finite pie; if you can get a bit more by being open, then do it," O'Shea said.
The National Retail Federation, an industry trade group, forecast a 4.1 percent increase in retail sales during the November-December holiday period this year, down from the 5.6 percent increase seen in 2011.
In a separate survey, NRF said 147 million people would shop Friday through Sunday, down from 152 million on Black Friday weekend last year. The survey did not say how many shoppers planned to hit stores on Thursday.
Some retailers, like Best Buy Co Inc (BBY.N) are keeping Black Friday on Friday, waiting until midnight to open.
At a Best Buy in Orlando, people had camped out in tents for days waiting for the doors to open.
Gabriel Esteves, 33, a self-employed car audio installer, waited in line with a bag of Cheetos and a Coke while his brother and sister went to their homes for Thanksgiving feasts with their families.
"They told me to take a break and go to the house, but today's the worst day to leave the line. People come and cut in line," said Esteves, who got in line Monday to buy some small electronics and a 50-inch television.
Best Buy, which is trying to stem falling sales under new CEO Hubert Joly, is one of the retailers in the spotlight this season.
At some stores, workers were not so happy to have early openings encroach on their Thanksgiving holiday. A petition asking Target to "save Thanksgiving" had 371,606 supporters as of Thursday afternoon.
Some shoppers agreed.
"I don't think it's good," Carol Lucas, 61, of Sugar Hill, N.H., said while her husband waited for a 32-inch television on sale at Walmart. "You're messing up Thanksgiving."
Still, at a Target on Chicago's Northwest Side, the first person waiting in line Thursday night was someone who worked at the store, Elsa Acevedo, 46, who finished her shift at 4:30 a.m. and lined up at about 2:30 p.m. to buy a 50-inch Westinghouse television.
As for the earlier opening, "I just think it takes people away from their families," she said. But she added that a midnight opening also pulled workers away from Thanksgiving celebrations because they had to prepare the stores to open.
Many shoppers lured into stores by earlier openings on Thursday may just be window-shopping.
More than 50 percent of consumers will do some form of "show-rooming" during the Black Friday weekend, said Kevin Sterneckert, vice president of retail research at Gartner Group.
"They will buy things because they looked at it in the store. They will touch and feel what they are interested in and then buy it online on Monday, either from the same retailer or a different online retailer," Sterneckert said.
At a Kmart on 34th Street in Manhattan earlier on Thursday, Charles Montague, a 55-year-old mover, was browsing the aisles just to kill time.
"I don't holiday shop," he said emphatically. "I buy stuff all year long, not during some man-made holiday."
Some were not waiting for Monday to buy on the Internet. Online Thanksgiving 2012 sales were already up 17.8 percent over Thanksgiving 2011 for the same period, measured through 9 p.m. EST, according to IBM.
The stakes are high for U.S. retailers, which can earn more than a third of their annual sales in the holiday season.
Consumers heading into the holiday shopping season remain worried about high unemployment and possible tax increases and government spending cuts in 2013. Also, lasting effects of Sandy, the storm that lashed the densely populated East Coast in late October, could cut into how much shoppers can spend on the holidays.
According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, two-thirds of shoppers said they were planning to spend the same amount as last year or were unsure about spending plans, while 21 percent intend to spend less and 11 percent plan to spend more.
"My family decided not to buy (Chanukah) presents this year - only for the kids. It's too expensive," said graduate student Danielle Slade, 29, from Jericho, Long Island.
Still, the Standard & Poor's retail index .SPXRT is up almost 27 percent this year, compared with a 10.6 percent increase for the broader S&P 500.
In New York's Times Square, a mix of locals and tourists lined up at Toys R Us.
"We just want to see what's happening," said a man who arrived Thursday from Paris. "We want to see what Black Friday is." A Santa hat-wearing expeditor quickly whisked him and his companion away before they could give their names.
Writing by Brad Dorfman. Reporting by Phil Wahba and Martinne Geller in New York; Additional reporting by Jessica Wohl in Chicago, Beth Pinsker Gladstone in New York, Jason McLure in Littleton, New Hampshire, Barbara Liston in Orlando, Florida and Ilaina Jonas in Westbury, New York; Editing by David Gregorio, Dale Hudson, Matt Driskill and Muralikumar Anantharaman