Black Friday got off to its earliest start ever this year as U.S. shoppers put their turkey down and headed directly to the malls, while Canadian retailers also trying to benefit from the annual consumer tradition offered more sales.

U.S. stores typically open in the wee hours of the morning the day after Thanksgiving, called Black Friday because that is when they traditionally turn a profit for the year. But Black Friday openings have come earlier and earlier over the past few years. This year, crowds gathered across the country as stores from Target to Toys "R" Us opened their doors as early as Thanksgiving evening.

When Macy's flagship Herald Square store in New York City opened its doors at midnight on Black Friday, about 11,000 shoppers showed up in lines that wrapped around the massive department store.

Joan Riedewald, a private aide for the elderly, and her four children ages six to 18 were among them. By the time they showed up to Macy's, Riedewalde had already spent about $100 US at Toys "R" Us, which opened at 8 p.m., and planned to spend another $500 at Macy's. Her next stop? A nearby Old Navy, which also opened at midnight.

"I only shop for sales," she said. 

Elizabeth Garcia, a sales rep from the Bronx borough of New York City, decided to start shopping at about 3:30 a.m. at Toys "R" Us in New York's Times Square to avoid the crowds on Thanksgiving when the store opened at 8 p.m. Last year, she almost got into a fight over a Tinker Bell couch, but this year things were much calmer.

"This year I wasn't about to kill people," Garcia said.

$11.4B in sales

Retailers were hoping that the earlier openings would draw a group of shoppers who prefer to head to stores after their pumpkin pie rather than go to bed and get up early the next morning.

It won't be clear for a few days how many shoppers took advantage of the Thanksgiving hours, but about 17 per cent of shoppers said earlier this month that they planned to shop at stores that opened on Thanksgiving, according to an International Council of Shopping Centers-Goldman Sachs survey of 1,000 consumers.

Meanwhile, 33 per cent intended to shop on Black Friday, down 1 percentage point from last year. Overall, it's estimated that sales on Black Friday will be up 3.8 per cent to $11.4 billion this year. 

In Canada, while not the shopping frenzy as seen in the U.S., many businesses also opened earlier than normal. For instance, dozens of people lined up outside the Toronto Eaton Centre early Friday, with stores at the downtown shopping complex opening at 6 a.m.

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Customers rush into the Macy's store during Thanksgiving Day holiday in New York on Friday. Sales are expected to be up almost 4 per cent in 2012 for the the U.S. shopping frenzy known as Black Friday. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Among other retailers looking to take advantage of the early-shopping mentality were Best Buy Canada, Future Shop, The Brick, Sears Canada and the Gap Inc. — which includes its stable of clothing stores the Gap, Banana Republic and Old Navy.

There are also online deals to be had, as Cyber Monday has also crept its way into the weekend shopping frenzy. Last year, U.S. retailers reported a 10 per cent increase in online sales in 2011 compared to the previous year.

Detlev Zwick, associate professor of marketing at York University's Schulich School of Business in Toronto, told CBC Radio's Metro Morning that local retailers were playing a "trial and error game" to see how much savings they needed to offer consumers.

"They don't want to offer too much because it cuts right into their margins, actually a problem U.S. retailers are seeing as well," said Zwick.

Zwick said he expects Black Friday deals to increase here in the future, as stores collectively respond to savvy shoppers looking to jump on the imported tradition.

U.S. shoppers worried about 'fiscal cliff'

In the U.S., the earlier store hours are an effort to make shopping as convenient as possible amid economic uncertainty.

Many shoppers are worried about high unemployment and a package of tax increases and spending cuts known as the "fiscal cliff" that will take effect in January unless Congress passes a budget deal by then.

At the same time, Americans have grown more comfortable shopping on websites such as Amazon.com, where they can get cheaper prices and buy from the comfort of their home or office cubicle.

That has put pressure on brick-and-mortar stores, which can make up to 40 per cent of their annual revenue during the two-month holiday shopping season, to compete.

That's becoming more difficult: The National Retail Federation, an industry trade group, estimates that overall sales in November and December will rise 4.1 per cent this year to $586.1 billion US, or about flat with last year's growth. But the online part of that is expected to rise 15 per cent to $68.4 billion, according to Forrester Research.

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People shop for televisions at Target on the Thanksgiving Day holiday in Burbank, Calif. Over one-third of Americans are expected to take part in Black Friday. (Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters)

As a result, brick-and-mortar retailers are trying everything they can to lure consumers into stores by making shopping as easy as possible. Some stores tested the earlier hours last year, but this year, more retailers opened their doors late on Thanksgiving or earlier on Black Friday.

In addition to expanding their hours, many also offered free layaways and shipping, matching the cheaper prices of online rivals and updating their mobile shopping apps with more information.

"Every retailer wants to beat everyone else," said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, a research firm based in Charleston, S.C. "Shoppers love it."

Hardcore holiday shoppers took advantage of the earlier hours starting Thursday.

"I ate my turkey dinner and came right here," said Rasheed Ali, a 23-year-old student in New York City who bought a 50-inch Westinghouse TV for $349 and a Singer sewing machine for $50 at a Target in New York City that opened at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving. "Then I'm going home and eating more."

There were 11 shoppers in a four-tent encampment outside a Best Buy store near Ann Arbor, Mich., in the afternoon on Thanksgiving. The purpose of their wait? A $179 40-inch Toshiba LCD television is worth missing Thanksgiving dinner at home.

Jackie Berg, 26, of Ann Arbor, arrived first with her stepson and a friend Wednesday afternoon, seeking three of the televisions. The deal makes the TVs $240 less than their normal price, so Berg says that she'll save more than $700.

"We'll miss the actual being there with family, but we'll have the rest of the weekend for that," she said.

Carey Maguire, 33, and her sister, Caitlyn Maguire, 21, showed up at Target in East Harlem neighbourhood of New York City at 7 p.m. Their goal was to buy several Nooks, which were on sale for $49. But while waiting in line, they were also using their iPhone to do some online buying at rival stores. 

"If you're going to spend, I want to make it worth it," said Caitlyn Maguire, a college student, who spent a total of $175 on Amazon.com, Best Buy and Radio Shack during her two-hour wait. 

Demonstrations and walkouts

While shoppers snagged early deals, some workers marched at a number of stores nationwide to protest the earlier hours.

Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, has been one of the biggest targets of protests against holiday hours. Many Wal-Mart stores are open 24 hours, but the company offered early-bird specials that once were reserved for Black Friday at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving instead. 

The issue is part of a broader campaign against the company's treatment of workers that's being waged by a union-backed group called OUR Wal-Mart, which includes former and current workers. The group staged demonstrations and walkouts at hundreds of stores on Black Friday. 

Mary Pat Tifft, a Wal-Mart employee in Kenosha, Wis., who is a member of OUR Wal-Mart, started an online petition on signon.org that has about 34,000 signatures.

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Wal-Mart warehouse worker Ben Lorber, left, and striking employee Tyrone Robinson protest outside a store in Chicago on Friday. A union-backed group is staging demonstrations and walkouts at hundreds of stores on Black Friday. (John Gress/Reuters)

"This Thanksgiving, while millions of families plan to spend quality time with their loved ones, Wal-Mart associates have been told we will be stocking shelves and preparing sales starting at 8 p.m.," she wrote on the site.

Shortly after midnight, OUR Wal-Mart said workers walked off their jobs in stores in Dallas, Miami and Kenosha on Thursday. It estimated 1,000 protests in 46 states, though Wal-Mart has refuted that estimate, saying the figure is grossly exaggerated and that the protests involved few of its own employees.

For their part, retailers say they are giving shoppers what they want.

Dave Tovar, a Wal-Mart spokesman, said that the discounter learned from shoppers that they want to start shopping right after Thanksgiving dinner. Then, they want to have time to go to bed before they wake up to head back out to the stores.

Still, Tovar said Wal-Mart works to accommodate its workers' requests for different working hours.

"We spent a lot of time talking to them, trying to figure out when would be the best time for our events," he said.