Shoppers, who had snapped their wallets shut since September, flocked to stores and malls before dawn Friday to grab deals on everything from TVs to toys for the traditional start of the holiday shopping season, feared to be the weakest in decades.
Retailers extended their hours - some opening at midnight - and offered deals that promised to be even deeper and wider than even the deep discounts that shoppers found throughout November. Best Buy, which threw its doors open at 5 a.m. offered such early morning specials as a 49-inch Panasonic plasma HDTV for $899.99 and a $189.99 GPS device by Garmin, while Toys "R" Us, was offering up to 60 percent discounts from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m.
But the question remains whether many people will be spending much money on holiday gifts as a recession nears, credit markets remain frozen, layoffs loom and consumer spending shrinks.
At the Best Buy store in Syracuse, N.Y., a line snaked past stores and around walkways on the second floor of Carousel Center a few moments before the store's 5 a.m. opening - about eight hours after some people near the front of the line had arrived.
Rob Schoeneck, the mall's manager, estimated about 1,000 people were waiting for the electronics store to open and said the crowd was about the same size as a year ago. Usually the mall gets the biggest Black Friday lines for electronics, he said.
"I don't understand this, whether the economy is good or bad," he said, referring to the line.
Inside, Kira Carinci, 33, searched for the $80 "Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock" video game and guitar controller bundle for her son.
Carinci, a teacher who lives in Cicero, N.Y., said that this year she is more concerned about money than she was last holiday season, and she set aside a certain amount for Christmas spending this year.
"I don't usually save, so this year is a little different," she said.
Meanwhile, Michaela Kipp, 42, a single mom who works as a dental assistant, arrived at the Best Buy store in Syracuse, N.Y., with her boss' husband because both of them wanted to pick up a new HP desktop computer packages, selling for $600. Kipp also wanted to get a $380 Toshiba laptop for her 17-year-old son. The two got in line at 9 p.m. to ensure they'd get the computers.
Kipp said she'd applied online to get 18 months of interest-free financing for the purchase, and that she hoped to use her income tax return to pay off a good chunk of it.
She estimated that she's spending less than she usually does on holiday gifts.
Still, "the fact that the gas prices have gone down, I feel confident that I can pay off this without any problems," she said.
Meanwhile, Katie Lecompte of Elton, La., drove to the Lake Charles, La., Toys R Us early Friday for half-price deals for seven children below the age of 5.
"We started planning right after we finished the turkey," she said. She added, "We do have a budget. It's basically what we spent last year. We come early because of the half-price sale. We saved $120 last year by coming out early."
Black Friday - which falls on the day after Thanksgiving and officially starts the holiday shopping period - received its name because it historically was the day when a surge of shoppers helped stores break into profitability for the full year. But this year, with rampant promotions of up to 70 percent throughout the month amid a deteriorating economy, the power of this landmark day for the retail industry could be fading.
Still, while it isn't a predictor of holiday season sales, the day after Thanksgiving is an important barometer of people's willingness to spend for the rest of the season. And particularly this year, analysts will dissect how the economy is shaping shoppers' buying habits, including whether they will spring for big-ticket items or focus on small purchases like gloves and hats.
Last year, the Thanksgiving shopping weekend of Friday through Sunday accounted for about 10 percent of overall holiday sales, according to ShopperTrak RCT Corp.
The group hasn't released estimates for Black Friday sales this year, but experts believe it will remain one of the season's biggest selling days, even as shoppers remain deliberate in their spending.
Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, expects to see the surge of shoppers dramatically taper off throughout the day and into the weekend.
"I think we are going to see the busiest Black Friday ever, but will it carry over past 10 a.m.?" he said. "The bottom line is a great Black Friday does not make a season."
AP Retail Writer Ashley M. Heher in Chicago, AP Technology Writer Rachel Metz and Associated Press Writer Kelly P. Kissel in Lake Charles, La. contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)