Retailers may have accomplished little more than a shell game of sales on Black Friday, drawing big crowds at opening time with earlier-than-ever hours, but seeing fewer shoppers during the waking hours of one of the busiest shopping days of the year, according to interviews at malls and stores across the region.
Crowds and hype greeted retailers at shopping centers, per custom, as customers lined up as early as 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving or 12:01 a.m. Friday to be the first in line for limited-inventory discounts from stores opening at unprecedented times.
But as the most-sought-after merchandise disappeared, so apparently did the thickest of crowds, with shoppers and some officials saying it appeared fewer were out later to browse or bargain-hunt.
"We were packed before midnight," said marketing chief Kathy Smith at the 400-store King of Prussia Mall, the East Coast's largest indoor shopping mall, whose 12:01 a.m. opening was four hours earlier than last year's.
By mid-morning, however, the wing known as the Plaza appeared to have decidedly thinner crowds than was the case the same time a year ago.
That relative tranquillity was absent only at stores where discounts were deemed irresistible (Aeropostale had a 60 percent off sale, and its red bags were ubiquitous in shoppers' hands), or where products were considered must-haves (the Apple store was steadily jammed and sweaty like a locker room, with people walking out even with products sold at full price.)
Customers across the region also reported that stores open overnight appeared to have quieted within a few hours of an early surge of those seeking "doorbusters."
"I think the strong numbers we had at midnight will certainly dilute what we get the rest of the day," said Smith, who added she still expected customer traffic to rise.
A Best Buy store that opened at midnight in King of Prussia had relatively few shoppers a few hours later - but had plenty of discounted video games, said Joelle Newell, 39, who had made off with Madden 13 for her 16-year-old son, Jourey, a junior at Upper Merion High School.
"It was a little quiet," Newell said, which struck her as peculiar because a year earlier, she had shown up at midnight and the electronics retailer had been packed.
Elsewhere, too, frenetic scenes had calmed before dawn.
About 5 a.m., a Toys R Us in South Philadelphia was nearly empty as employees restocked shelves after an early rush. The hottest seller, according to an employee: a 7-inch tablet from Coby selling for $70, down from $150.
The Walmart store on Columbus Boulevard in Philadelphia also had become less busy. Shortly after its 8 p.m. opening on Thanksgiving, a fistfight reportedly took place inside, apparently over TVs that were selling for about $200. No one was arrested, but people were knocked down, an eyewitness said.
In South Georgia, a Walmart store was the scene of a pushing and yelling match as customers got exuberant over deals involving cellphones with prepaid, unlimited usage plans, according to the Associated Press. A video circulating online showed the loud fracas in Moultrie. No one, apparently, was injured.
At 8 a.m., as part of an effort by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, about 75 protesters marched outside the entrance of the South Philadelphia Walmart, making it difficult for customers to walk in and out with shopping carts. The protesters were calling attention to low wages and benefits as part of a nationwide action.
They chanted slogans such as, "One percent, we will rage, pay our workers a living wage!" and held posters that said: "Exploitation of workers is how the wages are so low."
In a statement, Walmart U.S. president and chief executive Bill Simon said his stores had drawn larger crowds than last year.
"The work of our associates is even more impressive when you consider they served approximately 22 million customers on Thursday," Simon said.
Deep discounts were rewarded with large crowds. At the Kohl's in Morton, Delaware County, at 10 a.m., parking spots were scarce and the line for registers inside was long.
"It's busy, but it's very organized," said Kat Lockwood, 28, an emergency medical technician from Glenolden who spent an hour scooping up bargains for her children. "I saved double what I spent."
The pressure of Internet competition is one reason stores resorted to earlier openings, making for a less crowded scene on the ground. This was not lost on mother and daughter Sandra and Shanna Wadsworth as they stood in line about 11 a.m. at the Macy's housewares department at the Springfield Mall.
Sandra Wadsworth, 54, said they used to hit the stores together early every Black Friday "until she got on the Internet."
"I think you can get as good deals online except for stuff you want to see," her 33-year-old daughter said.
"I miss it," her mother said. "It was a tradition. It was fun."
Black Friday unfolded at a more leisurely pace on Walnut Street in Center City, where shoppers holding Starbucks cups strolled among stores, some of which didn't open much earlier than usual.
Horace Robinson, 41, appreciated the relative calm in the morning. "So far, stores haven't been crowded," said Robinson, who had been out with his mother, Mary, since 4 a.m.
At the Cherry Hill Mall in the afternoon, the problem wasn't the people - it was the lack of parking.
Cherry Hill lawyer David Weinberg, completing a shopping spree with his 11-year-old and 13-year-old daughters in tow, said the inside of the mall was far less congested than the lots outside, where the development of large restaurants has eaten into the supply of available spaces.
"The most difficult part," Weinberg said, "was finding parking."
The most difficult part for some other shoppers was taking part in Black Friday at all.
Mitch Baker, 40, of Havertown, who works in finance for a college, was holding a young son in the Gap at Suburban Square shopping center in Ardmore, as his wife shopped.
"I'm a proponent of online shopping now," said Baker, adding of Black Friday: "It's too crazy."
Inquirer staff writers Maddie Hanna, Jan Hefler, and Frank Kummer contributed to this article.