By Martinne Geller and Jessica Wohl
NEW YORK/CHICAGO (Reuters) - The shopping frenzy known as "Black Friday" kicked off at a more civilized hour welcomed by some shoppers this year, with retailers like Target Corp and Toys R Us moving their openings earlier into Thursday night.
While the shift was denounced by some store employees and traditionalists as pulling people away from families on Thanksgiving, many shoppers welcomed the chance to shop before midnight or in the wee hours of the morning.
"I think it's better earlier. People are crazier later at midnight. And I get tired at midnight," Renee Ruhl, 52, a hotel worker, said at a Target in Orlando, Florida, where she was already heading back to her car with an air hockey game loaded in her shopping cart at 9:30 p.m., or 2-1/2 hours before the chain opened last year.
Retailers have been in a race to get a kickoff to what is considered the unofficial start of the holiday shopping season as they try to fight for consumer spending that is not expected to grow as much as last year.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc's U.S. discount stores, which have been open on Thanksgiving Day since 1988, offered some "Black Friday" deals at 8 p.m. local time and special deals on some electronics, like Apple Inc iPads, at 10 p.m. Target moved its opening from midnight to 9 p.m. on Thursday and Toys R Us is opened at 8 p.m.
The earlier hours attracted customers who had not previously considered braving the crowds on Black Friday, Jason Buechel, a senior executive in Accenture's Retail Practice, said of his observations from the malls. Warm weather was also likely helping to bring out the crowds.
Big ticket electronics were not the only hot sellers.
At Macy's in Herald Square, the line at the Estee Lauder counter was four deep shortly after its midnight opening.
And at the Target on Elston Avenue on Chicago's Northwest side, known as one of the highest-volume Target stores in the entire chain, the $25 Dirt Devil vacuum that normally goes for $39.99 was gone, while there were still several large televisions. Items such as $2 towels were selling well, so were blankets, kids' slippers and pajamas.
Store team leader Lee Crum said that it looked like people who were there for the 9 p.m. event were staying longer.
"These are the folks that are Christmas shopping, you can see it's a family event," he said. "At midnight it was one person, coming in for one item."
The stakes are obviously high for U.S. retailers, which can earn more than a third of their annual sales in the holiday season.
The National Retail Federation forecast a 4.1 percent increase in retail sales during the November-December holiday period this year, down from the 5.6 percent increase seen in 2011.
In a separate survey, NRF said 147 million people would shop Friday through Sunday, down from 152 million on Black Friday weekend last year. The survey did not say how many shoppers planned to hit the stores on Thursday.
Consumers heading into the holiday shopping season remain worried about high unemployment and possible tax increases and government spending cuts in 2013. Also, lasting effects of Sandy, the storm that lashed the densely populated East Coast in late October, could cut into how much shoppers can spend.
According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, two-thirds of shoppers said they were planning to spend the same amount as last year or were unsure about spending plans, while 21 percent intend to spend less and 11 percent plan to spend more.
Throughout stores, shoppers could be seen using smartphones or other mobile gadgets to help them navigate and look for good deals.
At a Walmart in Bloomington, Minnesota, Derek M, 26, said he has used his smartphone to compare ever since the phone had that capability.
He was at the store mainly to take advantage of a deal on a Compaq AMD laptop for $179. He said he felt the deals were slightly better this year. For instance, a basic laptop he looked at last year was $199, he said.
Not everybody was happy with Black Friday starting earlier.
A petition asking Target to "save Thanksgiving" had 371,606 supporters as of Thursday afternoon.
Mike Labounty, 34, Lyndonville, Vermont, was shopping on Thursday night for 32-inch Emerson televisions and other items on sale at the Walmart in Littleton, New Hampshire, with his partner, Darcy Mitchell.
"I think it should go back to Friday," he said. "It breaks up families. Just look at us-our kids are with their grandparents and they should be with us on Thanksgiving, but we're here getting them a TV."
Some workers were also using the day to send a message.
OUR Walmart - a coalition of current and former Wal-Mart staff seeking better wages, benefits and working conditions, has staged months of protests outside stores and has targeted "Black Friday" for action across the country.
(Writing by Brad Dorfman. Reporting by Martinne Geller in New York. Additional reporting by Jessica Wohl in Chicago, Beth Pinsker Gladstone in New York, Jason McLure in Littleton, New Hampshire, Barbara Liston in Orlando, Florida; Editing by Nick Macfie)