Cautious shoppers have hunted for the best deals at stores and online as retailers offered new Black Friday discounts to entice consumers eager to start buying holiday gifts but weighed down by inflation.
Due to elevated prices for food, rent, gasoline and other essentials, many people were more selective and reluctant to spend unless there was a big sale on Friday.
Some were dipping more into savings, turning to "buy now, pay later" services that allow payment in instalment, or running up their credit cards at a time when the Federal Reserve is hiking rates to cool the US economy.
This year's trends are a contrast from a year ago when consumers were buying early for fear of not getting what they needed amid supply-network clogs.
Stores didn't have to discount much because they were struggling to bring in items.
Online discount rates were 31 percent on Thanksgiving, up 7 percent from the previous year, according to Salesforce data.
High customer traffic
Macy’s Herald Square in Manhattan, where discounts included 60 percent off fashion jewelry and 50 percent off select shoes, was bustling with shoppers early on Friday.
The traffic was "significantly larger" on Black Friday compared to the previous two years because shoppers feel more comfortable in crowds, Macy's CEO Jeff Gennette said.
Customer traffic was also higher than last year at Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, according to Jill Renslow, executive vice president of business development of the shopping centre.
She said 10,000 people were at the sprawling mall during the first hour after the 7 am opening, though inflation prompted many shoppers to figure out what to buy before showing up.
Major retailers, including Walmart and Target, stuck with their pandemic-era decision to close stores on Thanksgiving Day, moving away from doorbusters and pushing discounts on their websites.
Spike in online sales
Rob Garf, vice president and general manager of retail at Salesforce, said Salesforce data showed online sales spiked in the evening during the holiday this year, suggesting people went from feasting to phone shopping.
Shoppers spent $5.3 billion online on Thanksgiving Day, up 2.9 percent from the holiday last year, according to Adobe Analytics, which monitors spending across websites. Adobe expects that online buying on Black Friday will hit $9 billion, up just 1 percent from a year ago.
Black Friday saw some of the labour unrest that has rippled through the retail industry over the past year.
A coalition of trade unions and advocacy organisations are coordinating strikes and walkouts at Amazon facilities in more than 30 countries under a campaign called "Make Amazon Pay."
Fears of mass shootings
At Walmart stores, some employees had Wednesday's deadly shooting at a company store in Virginia in the back of their minds.
Jude Anani, a 35-year-old who works at a Walmart store in Columbia, Maryland, said the company offers training on how to react in such circumstances, but he would like to see more protection.
He was happy to see police officer standing outside the store, as is typical on Black Friday, and wished that was the case "most of the time during the year."
Analysts consider the five-day Black Friday weekend, which includes Cyber Monday, a key barometer of shoppers' willingness to spend.
The two-month period between Thanksgiving and Christmas represents about 20 percent of the retail industry’s annual sales.