The holiday shopping season kicked off early, as several retailers began offering deals on Thanksgiving Day. Many people complained about the early start and the mad rush for deals. In Rhode Island, volunteers set up a coat-exchange program as an alternative to consumerism.
The day after Thanksgiving, called Black Friday, is typically the biggest shopping day of the year. For a decade, it had been considered the official start of the holiday buying season. But in the past few years, retailers have pushed opening times into Thanksgiving night. They've also pushed up discounting that used to be reserved for Black Friday into early November, which has led retail experts to question whether the Thanksgiving openings will steal some of Black Friday's thunder.
The holiday openings came despite threatened protests from workers' rights groups, which are opposed to employees working on the holiday instead of spending the day with family.
Overall, the National Retail Federation expects retail sales to be up 4 percent to $602 billion during the last two months of the year. That's higher than last year's 3.5 percent growth, but below the 6 percent pace seen before the recession.
Analysts expect sales to be generated at the expense of profits, as retailers will likely have to do more discounting to get people into stores.
Here's how the start of the holiday shopping season is playing out. All times are EST, unless otherwise specified.
-- Friday, 1:45 p.m.: Some avoid Black Friday and donate or get coats instead in Rhode Island
While shoppers were spending Black Friday at the mall, some people in Rhode Island were taking a break from commerce to give away a coat or get one for free.
It's the state's twist on Buy Nothing Day, a two-decade-old statement against consumerism that started in Vancouver and is now marked on the day after Thanksgiving in some places in the U.S.
Greg Gerritt, an environmental activist from Providence, liked the idea of Buy Nothing Day but wanted to do something that gave back to the community. So he came up with the idea of having people donate a coat or get one for free. The state's Buy Nothing Day coat exchange is now marking its 17th year and has inspired similar events in Kentucky and Utah, Gerritt said.
This year, 15 sites were set up around Rhode Island for people to give or take a coat. The exchange on the lawn of the Statehouse went through a few thousand coats last year. Gerritt picked that site intentionally because it sits in the shadow of the Providence Place mall. He said he hopes the location will highlight the negative effects of consumerism on society.
Maureen Keane is unemployed and picked up four coats for friends as Christmas gifts. She says she can't afford gifts this year and calls it a wonderful program.
-- Michelle R. Smith, Associated Press, Providence, R.I.
-- Friday, 1:30 p.m.: J.C. Penney store manager feels encouraged after lackluster 2012.
Joe Cardamone, store manager of J.C. Penney's Manhattan store, said he's encouraged by the traffic and sales he is seeing. Penney spokeswoman Daphne Avila said the chain saw similar crowds at other locations across the country.
A year ago, Penney didn't open until 6 a.m. Friday. That made the retailer one of the laggards for the unofficial kickoff to the shopping season. It also cobbled together a few deals at the last minute. This year, most stores opened at 8 p.m. Thursday.
"It felt like getting back to the old times," Cardamone said. "Last year, it was heartbreaking because we were never in the game."
He added that he saw new customers and once-loyal ones who hadn't been back for a while.
The encouraging signs come as Penney is trying to recover from a botched transformation plan spearheaded by Ron Johnson, who was ousted as CEO in April after 18 months on the job.
Penney brought back Johnson's predecessor, Mike Ullman, as CEO. He is restoring frequent sales and basic merchandise that were eliminated as Johnson aimed to attract a more affluent, younger shopper.
-- Anne D'Innocenzio, AP Retail Writer, New York
-- Friday, 1:20 p.m.: Black Friday shoppers at some stores in Newark, Del., were left in the dark briefly.
The Christiana Mall had a partial power outage, though many stores still had power.
Delmarva Power said a fuse problem with the mall's electrical system caused the outage. Full power was restored in less than an hour. During the outage, some storefronts pulled down security gates. There was also an increased police and mall security presence.