Walmarts' cash registers processed almost 10 million transactions between 8 p.m. and midnight Thursday, even as IBM reported that online sales on Thanksgiving were up almost 18 percent over last year.
Which means millions of Americans were busily buying as the almost-Black Friday sales kicked off this year's holiday shopping season -- even if many of those shoppers didn't actually join the long lines overnight at Best Buy, Toys R Us and Macy's, stores that drew media cameras and the disdain of neighbors.
It will be a few days before retailers can tell if their early-bird doorbuster deals just stretched out sales that would have come this weekend anyway or drew in dollars that might not have been spent otherwise.
"Generally speaking, traffic levels last night were decent but not eye-opening," said Ken Perkins, president of Retail Metrics Inc., in Swampscott, Mass., in his analysis Friday. The National Retail Federation has predicted 2012 holiday sales overall will rise 4.1 percent to $586 billion, although factors that could affect that figure include unemployment issues and consumer confidence.
The industry has been worried about distractions such as the presidential campaign and the fast-approaching fiscal cliff that Congress and President Barack Obama are trying to avoid.
Pittsburgh-area shoppers were aware of those issues, but the main development that disrupted their traditions was the rash of even earlier-than-usual openings, and the staggered offerings that retailers set up to keep the momentum going through the night.
"It was a lot more fun when they opened at 5 in the morning," said Frederick Wennlund, whose Naperville, Ill., family comes to Pittsburgh to spend Thanksgiving with relatives.
The Wennlund family ventured out Thursday around 10 p.m. to check on an electronic deal at the Walmart in Gibsonia.
"The line was about 200 deep," said his father, Lloyd Wennlund. They left and then got up at 6 a.m. to try Ross Park Mall.
The elder Wennlund, who was found seated on a bench near the American Eagle Outfitters store Friday morning, offered his own description of the brave new shopping world. "It's more chaos instead of a race."
Thursday night was date night for Ralph and Peggy Mosco. The Latrobe couple has been going out together on Black Friday for about 40 years, and they've watched how the annual tradition has changed.
"It's been getting goofy," said Mr. Mosco, taking a break on a bench at Westmoreland Mall around 5 a.m. Friday. Years ago, Black Friday started on Friday, he said. But as stores started opening earlier, he and his wife adjusted to make sure they didn't miss the deals.
This year, their night started around 8 p.m. at the Walmart in Latrobe, where Mr. Mosco had his eye on the Samsung 46-inch LED television for sale for $598 -- about $200 off. It didn't come easily: The couple watched as other shoppers fought for cheap Wii games and DVDs.
And though their shopping would take them to Justice for a goddaughter, the television was going to Mr. Mosco.
"You think I'd stand in line for someone else?" he joked.
Macy's midnight opening kept shoppers in the Westmoreland Mall location into the early hours of the morning, and the store brought in reinforcements to keep energy levels up. Among them: Mariah Carey, Andy Williams and the Macarena, courtesy of Al Bergman, a disc jockey hired for the Black Friday fun.
Mr. Bergman sat behind a table across from the Jessica Simpson clothing display and controlled a small laptop that played through a pre-set list of Christmas standards culled from his CD collection.
By 4:30 a.m., the frenzy had passed. Mr. Bergman, who works full time in maintenance at Norwin School District, tried to keep the song selection upbeat to keep shoppers' toes tapping.
There were two requests: A group of teenage girls wanted the "Macarena" so they could dance beside the perfume counter, and a store manager asked for "Believe" by Cher in a nod to the Macy's holiday ad campaign of the same name.
The two main shopping hubs in Morgantown, W.Va., are the mall and a plaza called University Town Centre, both just off Interstate 79.
The nearest two-story mall is South Hills Village in Bethel Park, and while many West Virginians make that trek on the busiest shopping day of the year, those who stayed local this year found some gems at discount retailer Gabriel Brothers, which opened at 5 a.m. Friday. Half-off coupons were valid until 11 a.m., and employees at the Morgantown-based chain set out doughnuts and coffee for the earliest customers, but the carafes were quickly emptied.
At all Gabes locations, customers who said, "Gobble gobble," at the register received $5 off a purchase of $25 or more.
Rickeya Giles, 25, of Shadyside was in the front of the mob that swarmed into J.C. Penney in Monroeville Mall at 5:55 a.m. She and two friends already knew from the ads that Cooks appliances would be on sale.
Electric griddles, blenders and more were being sold for $8 each and there were three displays full of them. Minutes after the store opened -- even before the lights, which were timed for 6 a.m., were on -- the appliances were gone.
Ms. Giles was later seen standing with nine of those devices: three toasters; three griddles, two coffee pots and a blender. She said she and her friends had to run for the deals. Others who were not as fast to buy the items at 60 percent off were not as happy with the sale.
Ms. Giles stood outside of J.C. Penney for 65 minutes before it opened, a theme for overnight shoppers.
Shanikqua Peterson, 21, of the Hill District, stood in line outside Walmart before its 8 p.m. opening just to stand for two more hours inside the store to buy the 40-inch television on sale for $140. Normally, she said, the television would sell for more than $300.
The store had 25 of the TVs in stock and Ms. Peterson wanted to make sure she got one. Nearby her mother waited in a separate queue for a 30-inch TV.
Friday was a long day for Eddie Mitchell, 19, of Penn Hills, who was at the Monroeville Mall but not shopping.
Mr. Mitchell arrived at the mall at 11:30 p.m. Thursday to ready the kiosk where he sells cell phone cases. He planned to work until 5 a.m., go home to nap, be back at the kiosk at 9 a.m., work until 4 p.m., and then walk across the hall to the Buckle Store where he was working from 5 p.m. to midnight.
Clerks and managers around the mall noted the early morning shoppers, those who were there from midnight until about 5 a.m., were much younger than in the past and weren't spending much money.
Mr. Perkins, the retail consultant, echoed that theme at least in part, saying that a younger demographic turned out nationally and lined up early for electronics deals at places like Best Buy and Sears.
At Jo-Ann Fabrics in Greensburg, it was a traffic jam as buyers tried to navigate narrow aisles with shopping carts stuffed with towers of fabric. There were still at least 15 people in front of Carolee Cavalier and Jan Young when they found a quiet place off to the side and compared fleece and flannel.
The Greensburg friends stocked up on fabric used to make baby blankets. Fabric that usually cost $6.99 per yard was selling for $1.74. And at $2.99 a yard, more than $8 was sheared from the price of fleece.
But they'd have to wait to cash in on the sale.
"You'll want to take a deep breath before turning that corner," said Ms. Cavalier, pointing to the line at the cutting table.
Most of the night was clear, but the skies opened up on Friday morning. By 8 a.m., what had started as a light drizzle had turned into a steadier rain, and by 9 a.m. the rain was forcing shoppers off the sidewalks and into the stores at the open-air Waterfront Town Center shopping mall in Homestead.
For those who ventured out, local volunteer firefighters were there to greet them, positioned at key intersections and hoping to cash in on the holiday spirit by collecting bills and loose change in their boots. Katie Mazzarese, a Costco employee, and Erin Liposky and Carole DeAngelo, who work for Waterfront co-owner M&J Wilkow Ltd., were out greeting shoppers as well, passing out pastries.
"The weather hasn't affected shopping," Ms. DeAngelo said. "That's why we have umbrellas. ... It can hail, it can snow, it can rain, but if there's a bargain to be had, people will come out."
People who came out to the Macy's there found, at least by Black Friday's measuring stick, a sparse crowd -- as well as a disc jockey who, instead of Christmas carols, was playing "Back in Black" by AC/DC. The scene was different at the Macy's at The Mall at Robinson, where carols jangled over the sound system, customers jockeyed for discounted jewelry and cookware, and some savvy buyers picked up sale-price luggage sets -- then used the luggage to roll around the other items they bought.
Retailers plan for months to make sure that the Thanksgiving weekend sales go smoothly, but it isn't always possible to avoid problems.
The Sears department store at Century III Mall had to close for part of Friday, after a fire forced the evacuation of that store and the adjacent Philip Pelusi hair salon shortly before 9 a.m. The fire was believed to have started in the elevator shaft at Sears, said mall general manager Gina Mercorelli. The salon was evacuated because of the smoke, she said.
Meanwhile, technical difficulties appear to mar one of OfficeMax's biggest Black Friday sales. The retailer was selling Norton Anti-Virus software for $19.99 -- down from its usual $99.99. But the cash register network needed to activate the software purchase went down earlier Friday morning at the Greensburg store, and one employee said the outage was affecting locations nationwide. Shoppers were told they could return later to buy the software at the discount price.
Wal-Mart nationally disputed claims by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union that a union-backed group fighting for better pay and benefits had managed successful protests at the company's stores Friday, issuing a statement that claimed, "We had our best Black Friday ever." It said sales were not disrupted and not many of its own employees participated.
The protest group -- OUR Walmart, or the Organization United for Respect at Walmart -- had planned demonstrations for Thursday and Black Friday at hundreds of Walmarts nationwide. The group is backed by the UFCW.
The efforts appeared mixed in this region. Although the group's website earlier in the week showed plans for a 9 a.m. protest at the Walmart at Raceway Plaza in Carnegie, that didn't occur. Protestors did show up outside the Walmart store at the Waterworks Mall along Freeport Road on Friday afternoon.
This story was compiled and written by Ann Belser, Molly Born, Teresa F. Lindeman, Patricia Sabatini, Erich Schwartzel and Bill Toland of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette staff. First Published November 24, 2012 5:00 AM