After a year of cautious spending and worry over an uncertain economy and high unemployment, more stores this year extended hours into Thanksgiving Day, a day when stores are traditionally closed.
Many grumble about the relentless march of commercialism creeping into the holiday. But at least some shoppers took the bait.
While crowds appeared relatively light compared with the weekend ahead, the extended hours drew in overseas visitors, those who have to work Friday and some who couldn't resist a good deal.
Sears, Kmart and some Sports Authority, Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic stores were among those open Thursday.
At an Old Navy in Lutherville, Md., Brenda Tarver, 65, a retired postal employee from Baltimore, was dragged out of the house by her daughters, but was finding good deals on clothing.
"They've got good prices and a variety of items. A lot of things are 50 percent off," she said.
Willy Gerelbest, 45, a counselor from Brooklyn, was shopping at Kmart in New York for sneakers on sale for $9.99.
"I saw the advertising and just wanted to check it out," he said. "Tomorrow I have to work."
David Friedman, president of marketing for Sears Holdings Corp. said the decision to open 7 a.m.-noon on Thanksgiving Day stemmed from positive response to a similar "early Black Friday" sale in November, as well as success with Kmart, which Sears also owns and has been open on Thanksgiving for 19 years.
Workers will earn holiday pay and still be home in time for a Thanksgiving meal, Friedman said.
At the Sears store at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., the largest U.S. shopping and entertainment complex, sales were fueled by a charity walk at the mall.
The walk - and a good sale - drew Helen Schultz, of White Bear Lake, Minn. She bought a 19-inch RCA LCD HDTV for $129.99, saving $70. But she said wouldn't have bought it Thursday if she hadn't been there for the charity walk.
"I don't think shopping should be done on Thanksgiving," Schultz said. "But they need to make money."
Toys R Us CEO Jerry Storch said the company decided to open at 10 p.m. Thanksgiving Day because reaction was so positive to the stores' midnight opening last year. Before that, stores opened at 5 a.m. on Friday. He expects brisk sales of hot toys like Santa-ma-jig, a green and red singing doll.
"Customers lined up at 8 p.m. on last year. They wanted us to open earlier," he said.
A similar promotional blitz greeted online shoppers Thursday, though the holiday isn't a bonanza there, either.
Last year, consumers spent about $300 million online on Thanksgiving, compared with $887 million on Cyber Monday, according to comScore.
According to Akamai Technologies, which tracks traffic to 270 retail sites, traffic peaked at 11 a.m. and was up about 14 percent from Wednesday.
John Thompson, senior vice president and general manager of Best Buy Inc.'s website, said this year the company reached out to its frequent online shoppers and gave them early access to deals.
"Thanksgiving Day is a day when we are seeing more and more consumers choose online as a place to begin their research and actually transact," he said.
With nearly 15 million unemployed in the U.S., some store workers were grateful for the holiday pay or extra time off that comes with working on a holiday.
Bryce Humerick, 21, of Towson, Md., a sales associate at the Old Navy store in Lutherville, said he was happy to be making time-and-a-half.
"I don't mind," he said. "My Thanksgiving dinner isn't until later."
Not everyone was so pleased.
In the hardware department of the Mall of America's Sears, John McDonough had volunteered to work, but he bemoaned the increasing commercialization of the holiday season in general.
"It's a crying shame," he said. "What has corporate America done to us?"
Sarah Brumfield in Lutherville, Md., and Steve Karnowski in Bloomington, Minn., contributed to this report.