There were squabbles here and there, and elbows got thrown, but the Friday morning crowds appeared smaller than usual and less frenzied, in part because many Americans took advantage of stores' earlier opening hours to do their shopping on Thanksgiving Day.
That might be hard to stomach for people worried about commercial encroachment on Thanksgiving. But it is good news for bargain-hunters who hate crowds.
Whether it's good news for retailers remains to be seen. Sales estimates for the start of the holiday shopping season will start trickling out later in the weekend.
Stores such as Wal-Mart and Target reported brisk Thanksgiving crowds. The colossal Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, said it drew 100,000 people between 5 p.m. Thursday and 1 a.m. Friday, nearly what it draws over a typical full day.
On Friday, plenty of shoppers were out, but it wasn't elbow-to-elbow, said Moody's analyst Michael Zucchero, at a mall in northern Connecticut.
"Traffic seems a little light," he said. "Stores being open last night takes away some of the early birds."
Brooklyn residents Paul and Mary Phillips shopped at Target, Old Navy and Marshalls on Friday at the Atlantic Terminal Mall in New York City. They picked DVD box sets for $5, marked down from $45, and speakers for $19, down from $50. They didn't even have to wait in line.
"Because stores were open on Thursday, they're not as crowded now," Paul Phillips said.
There were scattered reports of shopper scuffles and arrests. In addition, protests were planned nationwide over minimum-wage laws and the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Missouri.
Protesters interrupted holiday shopping at major stores around St. Louis to vent their anger over the decision not to indict the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown.
At least 200 protesters gathered at the Galleria Mall in Richmond Heights, about 10 miles south of Ferguson. Several stores lowered their security doors or locked outside entrances as protests sprawled onto the floor while chanting, "Stop shopping and join the movement."
In Chicago, about 200 people demonstrated in a plaza near the historic water tower along Michigan Avenue, calling on people to boycott Black Friday shopping to show their solidarity with protesters in Ferguson.
Other disruptions: Best Buy's website went down on Friday morning for about an hour. Spokesman Jeff Shelman said "a concentrated spike in mobile traffic" prompted the company to temporarily shut down the site. Online monitoring firm Dynatrace said Cabela's, Foot Locker and J.C. Penney also had website problems.
Online shopping, especially on phones and tablets, may be siphoning off some shoppers from the malls.
IBM, which tracks online sales, said they rose 8 per cent compared with Black Friday last year as of 3 p.m. E.T., with much-increased shopping on mobile devices.
In the stores, Toys R Us and Target executives said shoppers seem to be buying more than just the doorbusters and are filling their carts with items not on sale. That's a sign that lower gas prices and an improving job picture are making shoppers more confident about opening their wallets.
At clothing stores, discounts were steep, with Old Navy offering up to half off everything. Best Buy offered $100 off some iPads. And Target slashed prices on TVs and video game consoles.
At the Westfield Fox Valley mall in Aurora, Illinois, the mood was calm. Some groggy shoppers were still in pajama pants, coffee in hand.
Kimberly States, shopping with her 11-year-old daughter, said it was markedly quieter around 6:30 a.m. Friday than the night before.
"It was a zoo last night around 10 p.m.," States said. "Now it seems like more of the old folks."
Last year, sales on Black Friday slumped 13.2 per cent to $9.74 billion, according to ShopperTrak, which tracks data at more than 70,000 stores globally. Bill Martin, co-founder of ShopperTrak, said it is unclear how stores will fare this year.
Retailers have turned to Thanksgiving openings to stay competitive and avoid losing sales that have shifted earlier into the holiday, said Ramesh Swarmy, a retail partner at the Deloitte consulting firm.
The holiday weekend still sets the tone for the shopping season, whose sales this year are expected to rise 4.1 per cent to $611.9 billion. That would be the biggest increase since 2011. Black Friday has been the biggest shopping day of the year since 2005.
Brian Cornell, who became Target's CEO in August and was at a Target store in New York's East Harlem neighbourhood on Thursday, said shopping traditions have changed.
"It's been more of a week event," he said.
As a result, some Black Friday shoppers were disappointed by what was left on shelves.
Kathy Wise of Scottsdale, Arizona, started shopping at 5 a.m. with her mother-in-law, hitting Wal-Mart, Target, Toys R Us and Sports Authority.
"It's not as busy today," Kathy Wise said as the two combed through a shelf of Monster High dolls. They couldn't find the one Kathy's daughter wanted, and said it seemed as if some of the best deals and items were already gone.
"It's kind of a bummer," Wise said.
AP Writers Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Kansas; Dan Sewell in Cincinnati; Sara Burnett in Aurora, Illinois, and Tali Arbel in Phoenix contributed to this report.