In an annual Black Friday sales ritual, US crowds scrambled for cheap deals, one Wal-Mart customer even pepper spraying rival shoppers. This year sales are being closely watched for signs of economic recovery.
With doorbuster bargains online and in malls across the country, Black Friday marks the formal start to the end-of-year shopping season relied on by many retailers.
The customary frenzy by shoppers at discount giant Wal-Mart got out of hand in a Los Angeles area outlet where a woman engaged in competitive shopping used pepper spray against at least 10 people, Los Angeles police said.
There were also US media reports of shootings and robberies at other Wal-Marts in California, Florida and South Carolina.
The stampede for deeply discounted goods is fed by aggressive marketing, with many stores this year moving up their sales launches to intrude on Thursday's national Thanksgiving holiday, then followed by all-night service into Friday.
Sears opened Thanksgiving morning -- traditionally a time when families gather for quiet get-togethers -- and Toys "R" US opened at 10 pm Thursday. Wal-Mart's big discount rival Target upset some employees by opening doors at midnight on Thanksgiving instead of the usual early bird time of 5:00 on Black Friday.
With the nation mired in post-recession gloom and economic uncertainty continuing to erode business confidence, there are hopes that this year's Black Friday will be the spark for a consumer-led recovery.
Market analysis firm SpendingPulse says there's potentially more than $20 billion in sales up for grabs. Blackfriday2011.com, a sales ads clearing house, predicted 225 million shoppers, up from 212 million in 2010.
In the Chicago suburb of Vernon Hills, Michelle Steiner braved chilly night temperatures to line up at Toys "R" Us. "It's a scavenger hunt. It's a big game," she said.
Nick and Megan Tinsley said they had discovered a $160 playset cut to $32 at Toys "R" Us.
"We came because it was opening at nine o'clock -- it was before bedtime and after dinner," Megan Tinsley said late Thursday.
But not everyone was happy with the ramping up of what had already become a manic annual extravaganza.
"It's horrible, it's consumerism, it's making the holidays into some sort of disgusting shop-till-you-drop experience," Paul Connolly, 42, said on New York's 5th Avenue, which was mobbed with shoppers clutching over-sized bags.
But as it happened, Connolly, who works in finance, had just accompanied his nephew into department store Saks to purchase a down-filled coat for $180, a whopping 50 percent discount.
"Generally I'm very against these crazy sales -- except for when it works for me," Connolly laughed.
With consumer spending the main US growth driver, President Barack Obama, up for re-election next year, will hope that many people like Connolly come to the floundering economy's rescue.
Retail sales numbers on Tuesday suggested signs of optimism. Retail sales rose 0.5 percent in October from September, the Commerce Department reported, topping market expectations.