U.S. retailers pushed customers to seek holiday bargains even earlier this year, offering discounts online and in stores well before the traditional Black Friday shopping day.
As a result, throngs on Friday at malls and shopping districts from Charlotte, N.C., to Los Angeles were noticeably thinner than in previous years.
Several major retailers had already opened their doors on Thanksgiving Day, and many have been promoting Black Friday-style specials online for a week or more.
But the risk is that they are driving sales earlier, and could be sacrificing in-store foot traffic, which can lead to impulse purchases.
"It's not that people aren't coming to stores," said Jerry Storch, the chief executive of Hudson's Bay Co., which owns Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor. "It's that traffic patterns are shifting." With more stores open on Thursday, shoppers don't feel the need to shop early Friday morning, he said.
Driving up to a nearly empty parking lot at a Wal-Mart in Houston Friday morning, Dora Rodriguez, 39 years old, stopped her silver hatchback in surprise and called out her window to another shopper: "Excuse me, the Black Friday sale?it's ended already?"
Inside the store, there was no jostling for the television Ms. Rodriguez had come to find, no long lines.
"It's not Black Friday anymore," one worker told some shoppers asking about prices. "It's Black Thursday. All the sales were on Thursday."
According to Visa, e-commerce spending on Thanksgiving from its U.S. account holders increased 22% to $1.5 billion from last year. Amazon.com Inc.'s sales on Thursday rose 29% compared with a year ago, according to Channel Advisor, a software company that measures transactions.
For the first time, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. made the majority of its Black Friday deals available online in the wee hours of Thanksgiving morning?some 15 hours before its stores opened. So many shoppers visited Wal-Mart's website when the door-busters went on sale early Thursday that the site was overloaded and checkouts were snarled.
Walmart.com did "slow down for a little bit when customers were checking out," Steve Bratspies, the company's new chief merchant, said. "The vast majority had no issues." On Friday, luxury department store chain Neiman Marcus Inc. struggled with a website outage that lasted several hours.
Analysts interpreted the move by Wal-Mart and other maneuvers by Target Corp. and J.C. Penney Co. as an attempt to win shoppers back fromÂ Amazon whose product discounts and shipping promotions are eating away at retail profits.
Amazon also has shifted its promotions earlier into November as surveys have shown that Americans start their holiday shopping long before Black Friday. The giant online retailer kicked off its "Black Friday" event, consisting of eight days of holiday deals, on Friday, Nov. 20?nearly a week earlier than last year.
"Digital sales as a percent of total sales is way up at Kohl's this week," Kohl's Corp. CEO Kevin Mansell said in an interview Friday. "It's exceeding even our pretty aggressive forecast."
Early Friday at the Crossgates Mall in Albany, N.Y., shopper traffic wasn't nearly as intense as years past, said Christian Benincasa, who was working his third-straight year at a Finish Line store.
As a handful of shoppers milled about, he said, "it's mostly been like this all morning." As of 10 a.m. Friday, the retailer hadn't sold out of its main draw, the newly released Nike Jordan Aqua 8, though crowds picked up later in the day.
On Friday, Retail Metrics forecast a 0.9% drop in November same-store sales for a handful of chains due to "uninspiring" store traffic. Retail executives, meanwhile, said sales and traffic trends were meeting their expectations.
"We had good traffic in our bricks-and-mortar stores and are pretty much on plan," David Brandon, Toys "R" Us Inc.'s chief executive, said Friday afternoon.
Heading into the holiday, the National Retail Federation predicted that 135.8 million people would shop in stores or online over the Thanksgiving weekend, a slight increase over the 133.7 million who did so in 2014.
Thirty-six percent of consumers said they planned to shop online during this year's holiday season, up from 19% who said so last year, according to the investment bank Jefferies. By comparison, just 18% of consumers said they planned to shop in physical stores this year, down from 35% a year ago.
"As great as online retailing is, people still enjoy the social interaction of going to the mall." said J.C. Penney CEO Marvin Ellison.
Part of the shift away from Black Friday is deliberate. Retailers are increasingly starting holiday sales earlier in November to spread out the shopping on other days.
After Target's busiest day on Thursday, CEO Brian Cornell said early reports indicated longer lines than last year and the chain expects stores to be busy throughout the weekend.
The traditionalists haven't exactly disappeared.
"I don't like shopping online," said Jennifer Pacheco, who was looking for sweaters and coats at a J.C. Penney store in Manhattan with her daughter early Friday morning. "I like to touch, feel and see what I'm buying."
Erin Ailworth, Tripp Mickle, Erica E. Phillips, Paul Ziobro and Sara Germano contributed to this article.