NEW YORK, N.Y. - Stores across the United States stayed opened during the wee hours Friday as bargain hunters flooded in, seeking to get a jump on holiday shopping ahead of the Christmas season.

The early morning shopping chaos that has become a day-after-Thanksgiving tradition crept back this year to eat into Thanksgiving Day itself. What was known as Black Friday — the day when stores traditionally turn a profit for the year — started on Thursday evening in many places.

When Macy's opened its doors in New York City at midnight, 11,000 shoppers showed up. Target Corp. opened its doors at 9 p.m. Thursday, three hours earlier than last year. Sears, which didn't open on Thanksgiving last year, opened at 8 p.m.

Elizabeth Garcia, a sales rep from New York City, went shopping at about 3:30 a.m. at a nearby Toys R Us in Times Square. Garcia, who has three children ages three, five and seven, said she specifically decided on the late time to avoid the crowds on Thanksgiving when the store opened at 8 p.m. She believes that was the best decision: Last year, Garcia almost got into a fight over a Tinker Bell couch, but this year things were much calmer.

"This year I wasn't about to kill people," she said.

It is unclear how many shoppers were drawn to the earlier openings versus the traditional Black Friday hours. But according to an International Council of Shopping Centers-Goldman Sachs survey of 1,000 consumers conducted this month, about 17 per cent planned to shop at stores that opened on Thanksgiving, up from 16 per cent last year when retailers were testing the earlier hours. Meanwhile, 33 per cent intended to shop on Black Friday, down one percentage point from last year. Overall, it's estimated that sales on Black Friday will be up 3.8 per cent to $11.4 billion this year.

The earlier hours are an effort by stores to make shopping as convenient as possible for Americans, who they fear won't spend freely during the two-month holiday season in November and December because of economic uncertainty. Many shoppers are worried about high unemployment and a package of tax increases and spending cuts known as the "fiscal cliff" that will take effect in January unless Congress passes a budget deal by then. At the same time, Americans have grown more comfortable shopping on websites that offer cheap prices and the convenience of being able to buy something from smartphones, laptops and tablet computers from just about anywhere.

That's put added pressure on brick-and-mortar stores, which can make up to 40 per cent of their annual revenue during the holiday shopping season, to give consumers a compelling reason to leave their homes. That's becoming more difficult: the National Retail Federation, an industry trade group, estimates that overall sales in November and December will rise 4.1 per cent this year to $586.1 billion, or about flat with last year's growth. But the online part of that is expected to rise 15 per cent to $68.4 billion, according to Forrester Research.

As a result, brick-and-mortar retailers have been trying everything they can to lure consumers into stores. Some stores tested the earlier hours last year, but this year more retailers opened their doors late on Thanksgiving or at midnight on Black Friday. In addition to expanding their hours, many also are offering free layaways and shipping, matching the cheaper prices of online rivals and updating their mobile shopping apps with more information.

"Every retailer wants to beat everyone else," said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, a research firm. "Shoppers love it."

Some workers were expected to protest the Thanksgiving hours. A New York City-based, union-backed group of retail workers called Retail Action Project planned protests in front of several stores, including AnnTaylor, Forever 21 and others that were opening at midnight on Black Friday and earlier.

"It shows that the companies are not valuing their workers. They're looking to their workers to squeeze out more profits," said Carrie Gleason, director of Retail Action Project.

Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, has been one of the biggest targets of protests against holiday hours. Many of the company's stores are open 24 hours, but the company was offering early bird specials that once were reserved for Black Friday at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving instead.

A union-backed group called OUR Walmart, which includes former and current workers, was staging demonstrations and walkouts at hundreds of stores on Black Friday.

But retailers said they are giving shoppers what they want. Dave Tovar, a Wal-Mart spokesman, said the discounter learned from shoppers that they want to start shopping right after Thanksgiving dinner. Then they want time to sleep before they wake up and head back to the stores.

Kathee Tesija, Target's executive vice-president of merchandising, said Target's 9 p.m. opening struck "a perfect balance" for its customers.

"We thought long and hard about when the right opening time would be," she said, adding that Target "wants to make sure we are competitive."

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Associated Press writers Anne D'Innocenzio in New York and Tom Krisher in Ann Arbor, Michigan..