Faith Ruggieri, standing in the damp and chilly night air outside a Walmart in Providence, Rhode Island on Black Friday, represented a hopeful sign for traditional retailers squeezed by online rivals such as Amazon.com Inc. The mother of two hoped to buy Pyrex dishes for her 20-year old daughter, who is about to move into her first apartment.
Sure, she says, she could have bought online. But brick-and-mortar retailers offer instant gratification, making it worth her while to turn out at 1 a.m. along with hundreds of other shoppers to look for bargains.
Still, the store was not overwhelmed after the doors opened -- a scene replicated across the country on what used to be the biggest shopping day of the year.
Tracy Watkins, a Bed, Bath and Beyond store manager at the Chicago Ridge Mall, said "nobody was busting down the doors at 6 a.m." as the temperature lurked below freezing.
The popularity of Black Friday has been on the wane over the past couple of years as more stores open earlier - even on Thanksgiving - and online retailers offer Black Friday-type deals year-round.
"It used to be very busy but for the past two years the mornings are not very crazy," said Gina Reynolds, a 39-year old housewife, shopping at a Macy's store in the Water Tower Place Mall in Chicago.
Crowds were also relatively thin at other stores in the mall, including J.C. Penney and Abercrombie & Fitch.
The holiday shopping season, which traditionally and unofficially begins on the day after Thanksgiving, can account for about as much as 40 percent of retailers' annual sales.
The National Retail Federation, which has been overly optimistic with projections in the past, has said it expects sales this holiday season to increase by 3.6% to about $656 billion, mainly due to rise in online shopping.