NEW YORK – Before some people opened their eyes, Black Friday was already well underway.
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The traditional kickoff to the holiday shopping season has become a two-day affair, with more stores opening before people put down their turkey legs on Thanksgiving. There's good reason for the creep; businesses know shoppers will only spend so much, and they want the first crack at grabbing those holiday dollars.
Still, millions of Americans are expected to head out in search of steep discounts on Black Friday, the traditional start to the annual shopping binge. The National Retail Federation forecasts holiday sales will grow 4.1 percent to $616.9 billion — the highest increase since 2011.
The holiday shopping season is a make-or-break time for many retailers, which can get as much as 20 percent of their annual sales during the time. Already, retailers have resorted to steep discounting to lure shoppers.
Here's a look at what's happening this Black Friday.
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The National Retail Federation expected 25.6 million shoppers to head to stores on Thanksgiving, which would be slightly down from last year. The numbers aren't in yet, there were crowds across the country.
In the Chicago suburb of Naperville, Illinois, the parking lot of a Wal-Mart store was full roughly 30 minutes before Thanksgiving deals started at 6 p.m., including $199 iPad minis.
Macy's said more than 15,000 people were lined up outside its flagship location in New York City's Herald Square when the doors opened at 6 p.m.
And thousands of people were at Citadel Outlets in Los Angeles, which opened at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving for a "Moonlight Madness" all-night sale. Hordes of cars inched past rows of palm trees wrapped in red and white lights.
Too Late Already?
Those waking early for some Black Friday shopping may have missed the boat.
It turns out the hottest deals of the season may be on Thanksgiving, according to an analysis of sales data and store circulars by two research firms.
Wendy Iscra was doing a little happy dance Thanksgiving night after she left the Wal-Mart in Naperville, Illinois, with her husband. They had just snagged one of the limited number of iPad minis on sale, as well as a Disney Infinity 2.0 toy box for their 6-year-old daughter. They saved about $100 on the two items.
When stores first started opening on Thanksgiving a few years ago, the move was met with resistance by those who thought the holiday should remain sacred.
Some Thanksgiving shoppers still felt a tinge of guilt even as they snagged deals on the holiday. "I think it's ridiculous stores open on Thanksgiving," said Reggie Thomas, 44, a director who bought a Sony sound bar for $349, about $100 off, at Best Buy in New York on Thanksgiving.
Cathyliz Lopez, 20, who spent $700 at Target on Thanksgiving, agrees. "It's ruining the spirit of Thanksgiving," she said Thursday. "But ... the best deals were today."
Ferguson protests at stores
Dozens of people interrupted holiday shopping at major retail stores around the St. Louis area to speak out about a grand jury's decision not to indict the officer who fatally shot Michael Brown.
The protests began Thanksgiving night and continued early Friday. Protesters spent a few minutes at each store, shouting inside as law enforcement stood watch. There was no immediate word of any arrests.
A New Tradition, For Workers
Walmart is expected to be the target of another round of protests calling on the company to pay its workers $15 an hour. The union-backed group Our Walmart says demonstrations are planned at 1,600 stores around the country. Organizers say workers already started walking off the job on Wednesday and some staged a sit-down strike at a store in Washington, D.C.
Brooke Buchanan, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman, played down the impact of the protests. She said past protests have focused on a handful of locations with a handful of workers.
"Perception is not reality in this case. We've seen this story before," she said.
Black Friday, an American Export
Americans won't be the only ones searching for deals on Black Friday; the shopping derby is becoming a tradition in the United Kingdom as well.
Online retailer Amazon is believed to have introduced the concept to the U.K. four years ago, with more businesses joining every year since. In its online survey of 10,000 U.K. shoppers, Verdict Research found 47 percent of the U.K. shoppers plan to participate in the event.
The trend marks a shift for shopping habits in the U.K. Typically, the day after Christmas — known as Boxing Day — is when retailers offer their big deals.
Black Friday is also one of the biggest days of the year for gun sales.
That puts pressure on the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which is run by a division of the FBI. NICS researchers have until the end of the third business day following an attempted firearm purchase to determine whether a buyer is eligible. After that, buyers have the right to get their guns even if the check wasn't completed.
Last year, the clock ran out more than 186,000 times.
The problem is the records submitted by states, which aren't always updated to reflect restraining orders or other reasons to deny a sale.
NICS did about 58,000 checks on a typical day last year, with the figure surging to 145,000 on Black Friday.
Candice Choi, Anne D'Innocenzio and Mae Anderson in New York, Sara Burnett in Chicago and Robert Jablon in Los Angeles contributed to this report.