At a Toys R Us in Ontario, veteran Black Friday shopper Carmen Hernandez had lined up before 7 a.m. to grab bargains on playthings for the 25 kids 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."
At South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa on Friday morning, Alissa Sanders, 56, also was in bargain hunter mode.
The Laguna Hills piano teacher had already snapped up household items including a crockpot, a coffee maker and two Dustbusters for $70 total, down from $210. Now, she had her eye on two Michael Kors handbags that were 50% off.
"To be honest, there is nothing here I really need," Sanders said. But, "I'm always looking for the best deal."
Lines at some stores began forming early Thursday as consumers eschewed Thanksgiving dinner with an eye toward wolfing down discounted merchandise at any of approximately two dozen chains that were opening at some point during the holiday. On Friday, shoppers continued to stream into stores as retailers rolled out fresh deals to keep the momentum up through the Thanksgiving weekend.
The pressure involved in snagging the best deals also caused some tempers to flare. Early on Black Friday, authorities arrested two women on suspicion of assault at a Kohl's in Tustin after a fight broke out among shoppers. A third woman was taken to a hospital after the altercation as a precaution, police said.
Earlier-than-ever opening hours on Thanksgiving are taking some of the shine off Black Friday. This year, the last Saturday before Christmas -- known in retail lingo as Super Saturday -- is poised to dethrone Black Friday as the heaviest sales and traffic day of the year, according to ShopperTrak.
Merchants and economists will be carefully watching to see how much consumers are willing to splurge. Data indicate that so far this year shoppers have remained cautious about spending even as the job market has perked up and consumer confidence has climbed.
"This season consumers will spend more money than they did last year," said Ron Friedman, a retail expert at accounting and advisory firm Marcum. "But people are still nervous -- they are working harder and making less money. There will be more deals this year, and sales will be up but profit margins won't be."
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.
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."
Some retailers reported a strong start to the holiday season.
Target said that Web sales on Thanksgiving climbed more than 40% compared with last year, making it the retailer's biggest online day ever. Wal-Mart said 20 million customers checked out maps of its stores, available on its website, presumably to help navigate aisles more efficiently. Traffic was so thick at Macy's in South Coast Plaza that employees were assigned to make sure people did not overcrowd the escalators.
As of 9 a.m. on Friday, online sales for retailers overall had gone up 6.4% compared to Black Friday a year ago, according to IBM Digital Analytics. That was a day after 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, is scheduled to roll out a fresh round of door-busters at 7 a.m. on Friday to lure people back in.
"Certainly 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 though Toys R Us is optimistic about the holidays, it was "premature" to predict how the retailer will perform during the crucial season.
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 had scored a prime second place in line by getting into line 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 Friday.
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 of 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.
FOR THE RECORD
2:48 p.m.: An earlier version of this post stated that Diane Kzlgezyan and Don Tanner bought a bike that originally cost $200. The price was actually $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."
The massive lines of deal seekers at many stores open on Thanksgiving was in stark contrast to the relative emptiness at the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. On that outdoor stretch of shops decorated with Christmas wreaths, the strains of the Kinks song "Look For Me Baby" could be heard over the speakers at a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.
Britney Garcia, 30, took advantage of big sales at Sephora and the Gap to buy gifts for family and friends. She said she's not paying attention to a budget this early in the season.
"I come to the Promenade because nobody shops here," she said. "I can get my shopping done."
Reporter Javier Panzar contributed to this report.