NEW YORK -- Shoppers were out before dawn in the U.S. for fun and for deals, as retailers that have had a tough year were hoping to bring customers to their stores and websites for Black Friday, one of the biggest shopping days of the year.
Black Friday has morphed from a single day when people got up early to score doorbusters into a whole season of deals, so shoppers may feel less need to be out. Some love the excitement, even if they've already done some of their shopping online.
Friends Yeshica Jeffers and Stacey Rhodes-Sofer hit a Walmart in suburban Albany, New York, early Friday.
"We always do it. It's a tradition," said Jeffers, the mother of four children, including twin 7-year-old girls. "It's fun. It used to be a lot more fun before stores started opening on Thanksgiving."
Rhodes-Sofer said she was buying cosmetics for her 20-year-old daughter and books for her goddaughters - Jeffers' twins. Also on the shopping list: kitchen gadgets and fishing gear for her husband.
At a nearby shopping plaza, four women were loading purchases from a Dick's Sporting Goods into the back of an SUV. Meg Noonan said it was the third Black Friday she has joined three friends for pre-dawn shopping.
"Honestly, it's fun to do it with friends while the kids are sleeping," Noonan said.
All four women said they went to Dicks for sports equipment and winter coats, and all said they'd "hit the computer" to make online purchases. Jeffers and Rhodes-Sofer, too, said they'll still do plenty of online shopping, especially through Amazon.
The shift to online buying will be a factor as industry analysts watch closely at how the nation's malls are faring for the start of the holiday shopping season. The Mall of America in Minnesota says that 2,500 people were in line at the 5 a.m. opening Friday, in line with a year ago. Shoppers started queuing up as early as 5:45 p.m. on Thanksgiving.
Jill Renslow, Mall of America's executive vice president of business development, said that stores like Nordstrom, Macy's and Best Buy were crowded. She said the items that caught shoppers' attention included were voice-activated devices like Amazon Echo, nostalgic toys, clothing and shoes.
Renslow says more than 60 of the 500-plus stores now allow shoppers to order online and pick up the goods at the mall. That's a big increase from a year ago.
With the jobless rate at a 17-year-low of 4.1 percent and consumer confidence stronger than a year ago, analysts project healthy sales increases for November and December. The National Retail Federation trade group expects sales for that period to at least match last year's rise of 3.6 percent and estimates online spending and other non-store sales will rise 11 to 15 percent.
Analysts at Bain say Amazon is expected to take half of the holiday season's sales growth. And Amazon is the top destination for people to begin holiday shopping, according to a September study by market research firm NPD Group.
"I buy pretty much what I can on Amazon," said Lam Huynh, who was at Macy's on Thursday evening during a visit to New York from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Like many consumers, he's been spending less time at the malls and more online. For the holiday season, he plans to do what he's been doing for the past few years: Go to deal sites and find the best prices.
About 69 percent of Americans, or 164 million people, intend to shop at some point during the five-day period from Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday, according to a survey released by the NRF. It expects Black Friday to remain the busiest day, with about 115 million people planning to shop then.
But Jose Disla, a shopper from New York, said most of the sales he has seen were available on Thursday.
"As you can see, I didn't buy much. And I came ready to shop, that's the thing. But whatever."
Even as Black Friday was getting underway, retailers are already looking ahead to Cyber Monday.
Target says everything on its site will be 15 percent off on Monday, and it will offer discounts throughout the week on specific categories, such as 40 percent off towels and bedding on Tuesday. Amazon's deals on its gadgets were similar to its Black Friday ones, such as 40 percent off its voice-activated Echo Dot. But it added other deals, such as 30 percent off Lego sets and 50 percent off certain Hasbro toys, such as Nerf and Play-doh.
Walmart, meanwhile, says it has tripled the assortment and deals it had last year. Among its deals: 40 percent off a voice-activated Google Home Mini, $100 off the Barbie Hello Dreamhouse and $90 off the Xbox One S video console.
Shoppers are expected to spend $6.6 billion on Cyber Monday, up 16 percent from last year, according to Adobe Analytics.
Shoppers hit the stores in search of Black Friday bargains