The nation's retailers expanded their hours and offered deep discounts on everything from toys to TVs in hopes of getting consumers, many of whom are worried about high unemployment and tight credit, to open their wallets.
A number of stores, including Walmart and many Old Navy locations, opened on Thanksgiving, hoping to make the most of the extra hours. Toys R Us opened most of its stores just after midnight Friday.
But worries about jobs clearly were on top of shoppers' minds as they focused on big bargains on TVs and practical gifts.
At a Best Buy in suburban Cincinnati, store officials said some people starting camping out with tents at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday. The store started handing out tickets for big items, like laptop computers and televisions, around 4 a.m. Friday.
Robin Fryman, 47, of Mount Orab, Ohio, said she and her daughter, a friend and her husband got out at 6:30 a.m. for deals at Best Buy. Her hours as a food worker were recently cut from 40 to 25 per week.
"I've definitely cut down. You have to cut down, because you have to eat," Fryman said. "It's definitely made a difference in the way I'm shopping."
She said she usually shops on Black Friday, but got out earlier this year to find a camera for her daughter. They bought a $300 Nikon camera for $172. Other than that, she's focusing mostly on practical items like clothing.
Dondrae May, a manager at Best Buy's Framingham, Mass., store, said shoppers started lining up at 4 p.m. Thursday for the 5 a.m. opening for the limited early morning specials like the $299 32-inch Dynex flat-panel TV.
He noted that crowds were larger than last year and that shoppers were filling their basket with more items than a year ago, when they were shellshocked following the ballooning of the financial meltdown. The biggest draws were laptops, TVs and GPS systems, he said.
"A year ago, they were focused on what they needed," he said.
At a Walmart in suburban Marietta, Ga, early morning specials on flat-panel TVs, cameras and other electronics were sold out before 7 a.m., two hours after the store started selling the early morning specials. Aside from electronics, store clerks said $2 bath towels, kitchen items and children's toys also were selling well.
Most of the Walmart stores were open on Thanksgiving to prevent the mad dash for the 5 a.m. opening in the aftermath of the death of a Walmart worker on Black Friday in a Long Island store.
After suffering the worst sales decline in several decades last holiday season, the good news is that the retail industry is heading into the Christmas selling period armed with lean inventories and more practical goods on their shelves that reflect shoppers' new psyche.
Still, with unemployment at 10.2 percent, many analysts expect that total holiday sales will be at best about even from a year ago.
Optimism rose in early fall as shoppers spent a little more, but stores say they've seen a sales slowdown since Halloween, putting merchants more on edge.
The promotional blitz typical for the traditional start of the holiday shopping season has high stakes for retailers who've suffered through a year of sales declines. It's also important for the broader economy, which could use a kickstart from consumer spending.
Black Friday gets its name because it traditionally was the day when huge crowds would push stores into "the black," or profitability. But the weekend doesn't provide a forecast for the rest of the season, which accounts for as much as 40 percent of annual sales and profits for many stores.
Still, retailers closely study buying patterns for the Thanksgiving weekend to gauge shoppers' mindset - what kinds of items they're buying, what deals are luring them.
Stores need to perform well for the traditional start because chances are slim they'll be able to make up for lost sales for the rest of the season.
Associated Press Writer Lisa Cornwell in Cincinnati, AP Writer Kate Brumback in Atlanta and AP Retail Writers Betsy Vereckey and Mae Anderson in New York City contributed to this report.