At a Toys R Us in Ontario, veteran Black Friday shopper Carmen Hernandez arrived before 7 a.m. to grab bargains on playthings for the 25 children in her extended family.
At the top of her list: Packs of Play-Doh for $1, down from $3.99.
"I've been saying I'm going to stop, but I always end up here," Hernandez, 41, said. "I think it's the deals and the excitement of knowing you can get a deal."
On Black Friday, the traditional kickoff to the holiday shopping season, consumers once again rushed into stores for fresh deals. Many retailers, including Best Buy, Macy's and J.C. Penney, had debuted their first door-buster bargains during ever-earlier opening hours on Thanksgiving — a kind of retail brinkmanship to win over shoppers willing to skip the turkey and gravy in favor of discounted merchandise.
This annual creeping forward of opening hours into Thanksgiving is taking some of the shine off Black Friday. The last Saturday before Christmas — known in retail lingo as Super Saturday — may replace Black Friday as the heaviest sales and traffic day of the year, according to data firm ShopperTrak.
Merchants and economists will be carefully watching to see how much consumers are willing to splurge in stores and online, and early reports were upbeat.
Traffic was so thick at Macy's in South Coast Plaza on Friday that employees were assigned to make sure people didn't overcrowd the escalators.
Target said that Web sales on Thursday climbed more than 40% compared with the previous Thanksgiving, making it the retailer's biggest online day ever. Wal-Mart said that Thursday ranked as its second-highest online sales day, behind Cyber Monday in 2013.
"This season consumers will spend more money than they did last year," said Ron Friedman, a retail expert at the accounting and advisory firm Marcum. "But people are still nervous — they are working harder and making less money."
The National Retail Federation has forecast that spending will climb 4.1% to $617 billion in November and December, compared with a 3.1% increase in the same period last year. That's good news for retailers, which can make as much as 40% of their annual revenue during the holidays.
But analysts are divided about how Americans will approach their holiday budgets.
The picture has been complicated by consumers' apparent reluctance lately to trust that the economy is improving. Consumer spending rose 0.2% in October, the Commerce Department said this week. The figure marked an improvement over the month before but came in below analysts' expectations.
One survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers predicted average household spending for the holidays will actually fall to $684, from $735 last year, driven by a growing number of people who earn less than $50,000 annually. Some analysts say many retailers may ultimately report a bump in sales but not in profit, after resorting to heavy discounting to attract shoppers.
A more recent Gallup poll found that respondents projected they would spend $720 on gifts this year, up from a $704 estimate in November 2013.
"We are expecting a modest uptick in growth," said Mike Zuccaro, an analyst with Moody's. "But you have the pressure of continued weak wage growth that might be tempering the mentality of the consumer."
As of 3 p.m. Friday, online sales for retailers overall had gone up 8.5% over the same period of Black Friday last year, according to the IBM Digital Analytics Benchmark. E-commerce sales jumped 14.3% on Thanksgiving.
Richard Barry, chief merchandising officer at Toys R Us, said store traffic on Thanksgiving looked comparable with past years. The toy company, which opened its doors to shoppers at 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving, rolled out a fresh round of door-busters at 7 a.m. Friday to lure people back in.
"There were customers definitely willing to let some dollars out of their wallets," he said. "Lots and lots of full shopping carts are going out the door."
Barry said that although Toys R Us is optimistic about the holidays, it was "premature" to predict how the retailer will perform during the crucial season.
The pressure to score the best deals caused some tempers to flare.
Early Friday, authorities arrested two women and a teenage girl on suspicion of assault at a Kohl's in Tustin after a fight broke out among shoppers. A third woman suffered minor injuries and was taken to a hospital after the altercation as a precaution, police said.
And for the third year in a row, at protests around the country, some Wal-Mart workers and labor supporters capitalized on the national consumption frenzy to highlight their demand for higher pay. About 200 protesters marched outside a Long Beach store Friday chanting, "We can't take it no more."
Many shoppers said waiting in the chill and even forgoing a turkey dinner was worth it to score a bargain.
At a Target store in Glendale on Thursday, social worker Gaby Escobeda scored a prime second place in line by queuing up at 1:30 a.m.
The Glendale resident said Black Friday shopping has been a family tradition for five years. She said they usually look for a new television, last year buying a 50-inch set. The year before that, they got a 47-inch TV, and this year they're going for a 55-inch model that's on sale for $395, reduced from $650.
"Next year's deal will probably be 60-inch," Escobeda, 38, said with a laugh. "That's how we get our TVs every year. We upgrade, you know?"
In addition to televisions and other electronics, toys were in big demand.
At a Wal-Mart store in Duarte, Diane Kzlgezyan and Don Tanner were back for Round 2 of Christmas shopping in the pre-dawn hours Friday.
The couple from Glendale crammed their cart with toys for their kids — a sleeping bag, pogo sticks and a 360 Razor bike, marked down to $50 from an original price of $120.
They had already shopped at Wal-Mart four hours earlier. Kzlgezyan, 41, said she used to work as a production coordinator for the travel and entertainment industry but has been unemployed and is on the hunt for bargains to check off her holiday list.
"We filled up the car once, we're going to do it again," she said. "I've got to look for deals."
Times staff writers Tre'vell Anderson, Taylor Goldenstein, Brittny Mejia, Javier Panzar and Sarah Parvini contributed to this report.