This story was reported by Megan Woolhouse of the Globe staff and correspondents Dan Adam, Laura Finaldi, Kathleen Pierce, and Sarah Shemkus. It was written by Woolhouse.
Arthur Geswell spent part of his Thanksgiving Day waiting for a Best Buy electronics store in Danvers to open because he wanted to buy a laptop at a deep discount. But the 63-year-old supermarket manager from Manchester-by-the-Sea also felt conflicted about whether he really needed to bargain hunt on a day set aside to count your blessings.
"Thanksgiving is supposed to be a day you spend with family," he said shortly after making his purchase. "Why do we do this?"
Thanksgiving is a holiday beloved by many Americans because it has largely defied the commercialization that has overwhelmed Christmas. But that tradition is fading fast as retailers, beset by weak consumer spending in recent years, have invoked new strategies to get people to open their wallets.
Across most of the nation, chain stores opened on Thanksgiving evening, describing it as a way to compete with online retailers, which enjoyed record Thanksgiving Day sales this year, according to IBM Smarter Commerce, which tracks online holiday shopping. Even in Massachusetts, where stores by law couldn't open until Friday, many shoppers bolted the table to wait in line Thursday for Friday midnight openings.
At the Walmart in Danvers, Dina O'Connor pushed a shopping cart loaded with televisions, Furbys, and Legos early Friday. The 42-year-old mother from Marblehead, who arrived about a half-hour before the 1 a.m. opening, said her biggest beef was not being able to find the television she wanted fast enough. Instead of being in the electronics section, it was in the Garden Center.
"I feel like we are mice in a maze," O'Connor said, "and they are watching us and laughing."
The shopping frenzy continued throughout the day. At the Cambridgeside Galleria, the line for the Apple Store stretched along two floors as shoppers awaited the 6 a.m. opening. At the Toys "R" Us in Natick, which opened at 1 a.m. Friday, lines were still snaking from cash registers into the aisles nearly 10 hours later.
One of the Toys "R" Us shoppers was Brianna Neves, 19, a student at Bunker Hill Community College. She said began her spree at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving, waiting for a Target in Framingham to open early Friday. But it's just the start of a gift-buying marathon, she said.
Black Friday "starts us off and we go the whole month till Christmas," she said. "Every weekend, Thursday all the way to Sunday night."
Nearly 150 million people were expected to shop nationwide over the long Thanksgiving weekend, according to National Retail Federation, a trade group in New York. The weekend traditionally kicks off the holiday shopping season, which accounts for about $600 billion in sales for US retailers.
Massachusetts shoppers are projected to spend about $14 billion in the weeks leading up to Christmas, according the Retailers Association of Massachusetts.
The day after Thanksgiving gained the nickname "Black Friday" because it was viewed as the day that pushes retailers into profitability, or the black. Over the years, Black Friday sales have started earlier and earlier until they finally encroached on Thanksgiving.
Facing ever increasing competition, retailers have turned to earlier starts and aggressive promotions to hold onto or expand market shares, said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for the NPD Group, a market research firm.
"It's front loaded," he said. "It's all about getting that early consumer dollar and protecting the market share rather than letting someone else or an online retailer come in and take it away."
But the frenzy that this retail strategy can inspire can come at a cost. Police said a Springfield man left his girlfriend's 2-year-old in a car while he went shopping for Black Friday bargains, then went home with a new 51-inch flat screen television, leaving the child behind.
OUR Walmart, a national labor group, said it was organizing 1,000 protests of the retail giant nationwide during the Thanksgiving weekend, citing the company's unfair business practices, including retaliating against workers who speak out against low pay and understaffing. Walmart opened stores in many states on Thanksgiving.
Activists said hundreds of workers and supporters protested at Massachusetts Walmart stores Friday.
"Walmart just wants to make more money and that's what being open on Thursday is all about," said Russ Davis, executive director of Massachusetts Jobs With Justice, a nonprofit that helped organize protests in Massachusetts. "This is a symptom of what's wrong with our economy."
Walmart said in statement that the number of protests had been "grossly exaggerated" and they had little effect on sales. "We have had our best Black Friday ever," Walmart said.
Massachusetts is one of three New England states, along with Maine and Rhode Island, that prohibit Thanksgiving openings. Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, which represents 3,500 businesses, said policy makers need to reconsider whether the state's restrictions are outdated and need to be lifted.
People are shopping on Thanksgiving, Hurst said, just not in Massachusetts stores.
"A discussion is warranted," Hurst said, noting that the group has not taken an official position in favor of or against holiday hours. "Are we contributing to the demise of our own industry and employment, to the property tax base and sales tax base?"
Many Bay State shoppers drove to New Hampshire by the carload for Thursday evening openings and the promise of price cuts. But some expressed regret about succumbing to the commercial creep.
Patti Reekie, a Tyngsborough resident, said she had barely finished her Thanksgiving dinner before heading to the Pheasant Lane Mall in Nashua to wait in line for Target to open at 8 p.m.
"It's not the same," she said. "You're supposed to be in front of the TV eating leftovers right now."
Americans' right to shop was not at the forefront of Congress' decision to officially designate the fourth Thursday of each November as Thanksgiving in 1941. In fact, the move followed a failed effort by business leaders after the Great Depression to move the holiday back on the calendar to add an extra week of Christmas shopping revenues.
Mark Whiting, general manager of Northshore Mall in Peabody, said stores are responding to what customers and retailers want. About 80 percent of retailers in the mall opened shortly after midnight on Black Friday, he said, and shoppers were out in force.
"When you see the level of customer turnout, you know it isn't a waste of time," Whiting said.
Some shoppers said that Black Friday was as much about the fun as the deals. Target shopper Kristi Carter, who camped out at the South Shore Plaza, brought a few friends to make a night out of it. She bought an Xbox gaming system at a $100 discount for her 8-year-old.
"I did Black Friday once a long time ago, and I swore I'd never do it again," she said. "But they reeled me back in."
Michael Farrell of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Megan Woolhouse can be reached at email@example.com.