An early start to the US holiday shopping season boosted retailers as customers loaded up carts last night, while later shoppers seemed more focused on sale items.
Stores such as Target Corp opened hours before midnight yesterday to try to capture a bigger piece of the retail pie.
The move seemed to bring out a different type of shopper than the usual one who grabs the "Black Friday" deals, analysts said.
Early shoppers are likely to force holdouts like JC Penney to move their post-Thanksgiving sales into Thursday night next year, said Liz Ebert, retail lead at consulting firm KPMG LLP.
"There will be pressure on them. There'll be an expansion of it next year," Ebert said.
The National Retail Federation expects sales during November and December to rise 4.1% this year, below last year's 5.6% increase.
That made store operators' strategy important as they battled each other, rather than seeing a growing pie in a season when US retailers can make a third of their annual sales and 40-50% of their profits.
"Retailers want them to buy now, they want to get that share of wallet early," said Michael Appel, a director at consulting firm AlixPartners.
He noticed that the Galleria Mall in White Plains, New York, was busy from midnight to 3am, but that traffic, while still brisk, was less heavy by midmorning.
"Stores that are promoting heavily still have customers in them at this time and those that are not, don't look like they are getting any traffic," he said.
The National Retail Federation said 147 million people would shop from today through to Sunday, when deals are at their most eye-catching - down from 152 million the same weekend last year.
The NRF estimate did not account for yesterday’s shoppers and anecdotal evidence suggested retailers opening earlier may have cut into traffic on "Black Friday", the traditional start of the holiday season that denotes the point when retailers in the past would turn a profit for the year.
"People seemed to be shopping quite a bit, although in talking to mall management, it seemed that traffic was not as busy as last year," Deloitte retail analyst Ranesh Swamy said.
In an acceleration of a trend that took off last year, shoppers were using their smartphones and other mobile devices for everything from checking for lower prices to mapping out shopping strategies.
Retailers were also using technology better, allowing sales staff to match prices customers found online and having them use tablets as mobile "checkout stands" so buyers did not have to wait in line, a service consumers were quickly coming to expect.
"I even heard customers complaining about a retailer that didn't have mobile checkout," he said.
According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, two-thirds of shoppers were planning to spend the same amount of money as last year or were unsure about plans, while 21% intended to spend less, and 11% planned to spend more.
Retail stocks rose in holiday-shortened trading today, in line with gains across the market. Among the leaders, Wal-Mart ended up 1.9% and Macy's Inc rose 1.8%.