Black Friday has earned a notorious reputation for raucous behavior, jam-packed stores and occasional bloodshed. But many Southern Californians who celebrated the nation's informal shopping holiday described a more subdued scene.
At 4 a.m. at a Target in Duarte, Michael Chung, 40, and his three children said many of the store's doorbuster items were still in stock. Last year, he recalled, many had sold out by that predawn hour.
"There's less people, and you don't feel the holiday spirit," said the seven-year veteran of Black Friday sales. "It's scary. It doesn't feel like Black Friday. This year is very weird."
Retailers strive to maintain order on some of the year's busiest days, but they certainly want a crowd. A good start over the Black Friday weekend could signal a healthy holiday season, a crucial period that can account for as much as 40% of annual revenue.
But Black Friday has evolved as retailers push promotions into Thursday and more shoppers opt to spend online — changing what once was a pivotal barometer for the entire holiday shopping season into a hefty weekend of sales that isn't necessarily indicative of the coming weeks.
"Black Friday is not as huge as it once was because the business has been spread out more," said David Brandon, chief executive of Toys R Us. It used to be "the critical day," he added. "Now it is just a very important day."
Unlike in decades past, Black Friday has failed in the past five years to be a good predictor of how retailers fare in November and December, said Britt Beemer, founder of America's Research Group. Last year, nearly 40% of shoppers his firm surveyed finished most Christmas shopping on Black Friday, instead of spreading their spending into the weeks before Christmas, he said.
Early Friday morning, Phyllis Mills, 60, headed to the Toys R Us in Ontario to pick up gifts for all the kids in her extended family, including nieces, nephews and grandchildren. Mills, who came with a budget of $150, said she was surprised the store was relatively calm compared to the hubbub of previous Black Fridays.
"Years ago, you couldn't even get a basket," the West Covina resident said. "People were mean."
Many customers may have opted to skip the hassle of brick-and-mortar stores to shop online instead.
On Thursday, Target Chief Executive Brian Cornell said the retailer's website was enjoying double-digit sales and traffic growth compared with a year ago, although he said it was too early to tell what impact that would have on in-store sales.
Gilbert Diaz, store manager at Target in Eagle Rock, said several customers made purchases online on Thanksgiving Day and opted to pick up those items in store that night instead of waiting for shipping. "That's new for us," Diaz said. "They were picking up right when the store opened."
In recent years, the power of Black Friday as the kickoff to the holiday shopping season has been diluted by retailers increasingly rolling out deals in October and November.
At the Glendale Galleria, crowds seemed thinner than in years past, although the people who did show up bought more, according to Brent Schoenbaum, a partner in the retail practice at Deloitte.
At the Citadel Outlets, stores reported that shoppers were making bigger purchases, motivated in large part by heavier discounts that went in some cases all the way to 70% off storewide, spokeswoman Chelsea Hartnett said. "The retailers saw last year that they really need to provide value to shoppers," she said. "They need their dollars to go further."
Analysts said it remains to be seen how the overall holiday season pans out. The National Retail Federation predicts sales in November and December will grow 3.6% to $655.8 billion, up slightly from the same period in 2015.
"It's a long season," said Charlie O'Shea, lead retail analyst at Moody's Investors Service. He noted that the two Saturdays before Christmas, which falls on a Sunday this year, will be "big days" for retailers.
O'Shea predicts that the shoppers will shell out more this year but said many people are still reluctant to spend.
"Consumers are still a little skittish about a lot of things," he said. "The whole country seems like it's deal-focused."
Americans, on average, plan to spend $785 on Christmas gifts this year, according to the Gallup poll, on par with recent years but still significantly below record highs of as much as $900 before the Great Recession. Preliminary Black Friday shopping data come out this weekend.
At Wal-Mart in Duarte, Ray Wade, who has worked at the store for seven years, posited Friday's reduced crowds to doorbuster deals that rolled out Thursday and the growing trend toward online shopping.
"There's no point for people to come in the mornings," he said. "People are picking at scraps."
Some shoppers, such as business manager Rosa Grimes, also noticed that the promotions weren't as great as they used to be at South Coast Plaza.
Grimes, 48, had a sleepover with her two sisters on Thanksgiving night — a tradition now in its 15th year. They woke up together at 5 a.m. and hit the mall ready to shop.
"The longest we've been here has been 16 hours, but we're not doing that today," the Culver City resident said with a laugh. "It used to be that when you got up this early and you came into the mall, there were great deals. Each year, the deals aren't as spectacular as the year before."
But there still were those who enthusiastically dove into the Black Friday madness.
At a Kohl's in Ontario, Vanessa Vargas, 21, waited with her mom in a line that extended to the back of the store. Her mother, Rosa, said she plans to increase her holiday budget about 40% this year to $1,000 because she's confident her human resources job is secure.
The pair, who already had gone to Victoria Gardens shopping center in Rancho Cucamonga, said going out together on Black Friday was a tradition they planned to keep.
"We enjoy the rush," said Vargas, a Cal State Fullerton student.
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1 p.m.: This article was updated with addition shopper comments from Toys R Us, Kohl's and South Coast Plaza.
11:10 a.m.: This article was updated with analyst comments and additional reporting from retailers in Eagle Rock, Glendale and Ontario.
10:29 a.m.: This article was updated with additional comment from retailers, analysts and shoppers.
8:10 a.m.: This article was updated with additional reporting from South Coast Plaza.