By Hibah Yousuf, CNNMoney
NEW YORK (CNNMoney) – Shoppers turned out in droves at malls and big-box stores around the country, taking advantage of Black Friday deals as retailers opened their doors earlier than ever on Thanksgiving. According to early estimates, the late evening openings are paying off.
Toys R Us, Wal-Mart and Sears got a head start on the big shopping weekend by opening at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. That’s even earlier than last year, when the toy retailer got a 9 p.m. start and Wal-Mart , the world’s largest retailer, opened at 10 p.m. Sears opened at 4 a.m. last year on Black Friday.
“By opening even earlier, the retailers have been able to attract a broader spectrum of consumers to participate in Black Friday — not everyone is willing to wake up at 4 a.m.,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at the NPD Group. “They definitely got a lot more business early and upfront.”
The crowd at the Toys R Us in New York’s Times Square started gathering about four hours ahead of the open, and was larger than it was last year, said CEO Jerry Storch.
“Our customers love the earlier opening,” said Storch. “The atmosphere is celebratory and the crowds have been happy and excited to start their holiday shopping.”
While shoppers were excited for the deals, particularly electronics such as the Nintendo WiiU and a “buy one, get one for $1″ deal on video games, many did have to rearrange their Thanksgiving dinner plans in order to take advantage of this year’s earlier opening. Many planned to shop, and then eat a late dinner.
New York City resident Shay Brown, 25, who spent Thanksgiving with relatives in Pittsburgh, decided to head to the Wal-Mart in Pittsburgh’s Robinson Township for Black Friday shopping for the first time this year with her family, but wasn’t thrilled about the early opening time.
“We could have been sitting around enjoying each others’ company, but instead we had to rush here to get the deals,” said Shay, who was shopping for DVDs.
Fellow Pittsburgh Wal-Mart shopper Vanessa Moore, 36, however, welcomed the 8 p.m. opening. She arrived two hours early to the store with nine other family members, and planned to hit the nearby Kmart and mall after Wal-Mart.
“I actually like that they’re doing it on Thursday, because after you’re done eating, there’s really nothing to do,” said the Steubenville, Ohio resident who is a veteran Black Friday shopper.
The earlier openings were also impacting store employees, of course.
Ahead of the big shopping days, union-backed groups OUR Walmart and Making Change at Wal-Mart, along with watchdog group Corporate Action Network, said they were organizing Black Friday protests. They called on the country’s largest employer to end what they call retaliation against employees who speak out for better pay, fair schedules and affordable health care.
There were no early reports of disruptions at Wal-Mart stores.
Shoppers started lining up at the Sears at North Point Mall in Alpharetta, Ga., around 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, and by the time the retailer opened, there was a crowd of about 500 people, said Nick Nicolosi, the mall’s general manager.
A second rush began at 10:30 p.m., as shoppers lined up to enter the rest of the mall’s retailers and Macy’s ahead of their midnight openings.
Nicolosi estimated that the mall’s parking lots were over half full when the clock struck midnight, and about 5,000 people were waiting to storm the stores — the biggest Black Friday crowd North Point has seen since it began hosting its Rockin Shoppin Eve event five years ago.
Deals on home furnishings, including bed sets and rugs, and appliances were particularly popular this year, in addition to sweaters, boots and electronics.
At Macy’s, Black & Decker waffle makers were among the items to sell out early, said Nicolosi. Shoppers also rushed to buy Keurig coffee makers and travel luggage.
“If the amount of bags is any indication, I think we’ll have a big Black Friday this year,” said Nicolosi.
The mall expected a third big wave of shoppers when JC Penney opened its doors at 6 a.m., two hours later than its Black Friday opening last year.
At malls around the country, Limited Brands’ Victoria’s Secret seemed to be inviting large crowds. At North Grand Mall in Ames, Iowa, hoodies and yoga pants were sold out within five minutes, according to a spokeswoman, and in Lufkin, Texas, the checkout lines stretched to the door even at 2 a.m., two hours after the store had opened.
The manager at the Victoria’s Secret store in Town East Mall in Mesquite, Texas, said at sales at the location have far surpassed last year’s Black Friday sales.
In fact, Black Friday sales at retailers at Town East Mall, which drew in more than 15,000 people for its midnight opening, were up between 8% and 50% by early Friday morning compared to the previous year, according to mall general manager Chad Hastings.
Given the additional number of consumers that decided to shop this year and the greater number of shopping hours, NDP Group’s Cohen expects total Black Friday sales will be up between 2% and 3% from last year.
But by Sunday morning, Cohen expects shopper traffic will be as back to a level that would be typical of a weekend in October. And he expects that holiday sales through the entire season will only rise between 1% and 2%.
“There are more hours to shop, but consumers don’t have more relatives or more money in their pocket, so once all the dust settles, we won’t see too much growth overall,” he said.
Meanwhile, shoppers were also hitting the stores online on Thanksgiving and Black Friday. As of 9 p.m. ET on Thanksgiving, online shopping sales were up almost 18% over a year earlier, according to IBM. Consumers shopping from a mobile device reached a new record of almost 30%.
Black Friday traditionally marks the start of the holiday shopping season each year. Stores consider it the most important time of the year, because they can make up to 40% of their annual sales in the November-December period.
– CNNMoney’s Emily Jane Fox, Annalyn Kurtz and James O’Toole contributed to this article.