This year's earlier start to Black Friday was a hit with bargain-hunting Long Islanders and retailers alike.
Local stores reported an uptick in business as crowds surged in starting at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving, and new waves of shoppers kept cash registers ringing Friday.
Whether those shoppers will keep spending freely throughout the holiday season is an open question, though, especially with consumers facing financial troubles and many Long Islanders coping with the costs of rebuilding after superstorm Sandy.
Retailers "frontloaded" their holiday selling season, a move that appears to be increasing sales this Black Friday weekend, said Marshal Cohen, retail analyst for the Port Washington-based NPD Group.
The flow of crowds lasted longer, retailers had more supplies of the "doorbuster" items than they usually do, and there were more men, younger shoppers and people buying for themselves, Cohen said. Friday's popular doorbusters included flat-screen TVs and tablet computers.
"We saw the new customer, who is not willing to get up at 4 a.m., but willing to stay up late" on Thursday, he said. "We'll probably look back and say it was a successful Black Friday, it was better than last year."
Still, Cohen cautioned that more business during Black Friday weekend doesn't necessarily mean more sales for the overall holiday period.
For decades, stores have opened their doors early on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. But the openings have crept earlier and earlier, and this year, major chains from Walmart to Toys R Us began offering bargains as early as 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving.
Retailers are looking to make shopping as convenient as possible, as many Americans worry about high unemployment and economic uncertainty. At the same time, consumers have grown more comfortable shopping online, putting added pressure on brick-and-mortar stores, which can make up to 40 percent of their annual revenue during the holiday shopping season.
The National Retail Federation, an industry trade group, estimates that overall sales in November and December will rise 4.1 percent this year to $586.1 billion, below last year's 5.6 percent growth.
On Long Island, Cohen had projected a 3.8 percent increase in sales, but after Sandy lowered that figure to 2.8 percent.
Whatever the long-term forecast, local retailers were pleased to see the extra Black Friday shoppers. Tanger Outlets at the Arches in Deer Park saw increased customer traffic for the center's 10 p.m. opening on Thanksgiving, with many shoppers arriving at 8 p.m., said general manager Nancy Larson.
Not everyone was thrilled about the early start. Walmart stores in East Setauket, East Meadow and Centereach were the target of protesters who accused the Bentonville, Ark., chain of ruining employees' Thanksgivings by calling them in to work on Thursday.
A Walmart spokesman dismissed the protests, which took place nationwide, saying in a statement that the demonstrators did not represent the chain's 1.3 million associates.
And despite the steep discounts on some items, not all shoppers were impressed by the bargains.
"To be honest, the sales are not that great," said Kaveen Singh, a former Manhasset resident who lives in Potomac, Md., and returned to the area for Thanksgiving.
"It's the people, the energy and seeing other people here," she said at Roosevelt Field early Friday.
Some shoppers had a more serious purpose, seeking to replace storm-damaged goods without draining their bank accounts.
Barbara Popelaski left behind a home full of destroyed furniture and memories when rescuers pulled her from her Sandy-flooded Inwood home into a motorboat. The first thing on her Black Friday shopping list was practical: a new gas-powered washer-dryer combo at P.C. Richard & Son in Oceanside. The Hotpoint combo was marked down to $679.94, a 34 percent discount.
Popelaski, a law clerk in her 50s, said getting a good price was a priority, since she does not know how much she will collect from her insurance company.
If there was a bright spot to Sandy's devastation, it was that she'll get a fresh start and that no one in her family was hurt, she said: "We're just thankful we're all right . . . and we have each other." With AP