Although total holiday spending may be down this year, shoppers descended on retail stores in droves today, ready to shake off Thanksgiving Day malaise and open their wallets.
It's the blowout shopping day known as Black Friday, when retailers large and small entice consumers with cut-throat prices on everything from apparel, luxury goods, electronics and jewelry.
New mom Jill Johnson wasn't afraid to be aggressive while hunting for deals in South Towne Mall in Sandy, Utah.
"I just started running people over with my stroller, so it worked," she said, laughing.
But aggressive shopping in one California store was no laughing matter. An Upland, Calif., Walmart kicked its customers out and shut its doors for two hours early this morning after the crowds got too rowdy.
Police said the problems began about 3 a.m. when workers began bringing out some of the big-ticket items such as $200 laptops. Customers started grabbing the merchandise before the store management was ready.
Walmart has had Black Friday crowd-control problems before: A temporary worker at a Long Island, N.Y., Walmart was trampled to death last year when shoppers rushed into the store.
Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at New York retail consulting firm NPD Group, said, generally, this year's Black Friday shopping rush was less chaotic than last year's.
Consumers, he said, did their research and were entering stores with specific goals in mine instead of browsing. Retailers, in turn, made the big deals easier to find.
"The retailer put the sale items front and center," he said. "There was no longer the scavenger hunt that they've used in the past. It was a much easier, more organized shopping experience."
Cohen, who visited seven shopping malls in the New York metropolitan area this morning, said foot traffic was as high or higher than last year. Consumers looking to buy things for themselves (instead of just gifts for others) is part of what's motivating this year's shopping throngs, he said.
"Last year, no one was buying for themselves," he said. "It was the absence of impulse and self-purchasing, this year people are actually telling me, 'You know what, I'm going to buy this for myself too because I haven't bought anything all year.'"
Now is a critical time for retailers. Spending on the weekend after Thanksgiving is typically a strong indicator of how the rest of the holiday season will develop.
Today is called Black Friday because it's the date on which retailers are typically expected to become profitable for the year, or go to being in the black from being in the red. As in the past, it's likely to be the No. 1 shopping day of the year, by both foot traffic and sales. Black Friday will generate 6 percent of the season's revenue, according to ShopperTrak, a store- and mall-traffic tracker.
Big-top retailers such as Walmart, Sears, Best Buy and Target began slashing prices weeks ahead of Black Friday in the hope of luring thrifty shoppers into their stores.
Unexpected retailers such as Lowe's, Home Depot and PetSmart joined in the Black Friday discounting, advertising deep discounts on everything from table settings to snow blowers.
Walmart's Black Friday specials include 50-inch Sanyo plasma HDTVs for $598 and Magnavox Blu-ray disc players for $78, according to Melissa O'Brien,a company spokeswoman.
Best Buy is selling an HP laptop, the G60-507DX, for $197. The model normally retails for $549.99. Best Buy launched its second annual VIP contest at the beginning of November. Contestants are eligible to win a $1,000 Best Buy gift card, limo rides to and from store locations and early admittance into the store.
Many of Target's Black Friday deals are on electronics, including a Westinghouse 32-inch LCD HDTV for under $250. Sears started announcing its early "Doorbusters" as Black Friday specials, including a 42-inch LCD TVs for $649.
"Retailers have already cut down inventory and started holiday discounts early this year," says Jie Zhang, associate professor of marketing at the University of Maryland School of Business. "Good deals are already out there and some hot items may sell out this year."
Online retailers are reducing prices on popular big-ticket items such as plasma televisions and electronics, as well as on less expensive items.
Amazon is offering a 60 percent sale on Blu-ray movies starting at $9.99, with a considerable number of Blu-ray titles available for $10. The offer is available through Dec. 31. The Seattle Web retailer is in fierce battle with Walmart for spending dollars this shopping season.
"Both are taking proactive steps to make sure that their businesses continue to grow," says Lee Eisenberg, the author of "Shoptimism."
"While Walmart has had a pretty strong presence online, they haven't fired the imagination of many consumers like Amazon has."
Online sales account for 8 percent of total annual retail, according to the National Retail Federation. Internet researcher comScore said consumers spent $8.21 billion online from Nov. 1-22, a 2 percent increase from the same period a year earlier. The Internet researcher expects the total for both November and December to reach $28.8 billion, a 3 percent gain from last year's holiday season.
New Web sites are popping up to help point shoppers to deals. A site called Black Friday Ads publishes daily updates featuring the best deals on electronics across the Web. SickDeals.Net categorizes offers by retailer, including major ones such as Amazon.com, Best Buy, Macy's and Target, and the number of deals available at each one.
BlackFriday.Info allows shoppers to create a Black Friday shopping list and specifies which deals are online-only.
The weekend after Thanksgiving is easily among the biggest for retailers.
Up to 134 million U.S. consumers may shop for holiday gifts this Thanksgiving weekend, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation. That's 4.7 percent more than last year. A projected 57 million consumers definitely intend to hit the stores in the three days after the Thanksgiving Day holiday, the survey showed.
But thanks to early Black Friday sales – including sales on Thanksgiving Day itself -- the importance of the Black Friday shopping weekend is fading, analyst Cohen said.
"It's really about shopping earlier and longer," he said. "I'm going to be talking about black November, not black Friday.
Retailing analysts say the tight economy is forcing stores to reduce inventory on higher priced items to prevent unplanned markdowns at the end of the season. That could create a run on popular gift-giving items such as electronics, video games and TV's, which are expected to clear store shelves quickly.
"It's been a very difficult year for retailers and the holiday season isn't expected to be strong," says Nancy Koehn, a professor and authority on entrepreneurial history at Harvard Business School. "By tightening inventory, stores will be creating demand for popular items, particularly those in a higher price range so you should expect to see a lot of early buzz for popular items in some stores."
Popular gifts such as Amazon's Kindle, iPod Touch and Netbooks, the small, portable personal computers, are expected to be among the first items to sell out this holiday shopping season.
With reports from ABC News Radio's Alex Stone and Andrew Adams.