By Martinne Geller and Dhanya Skariachan
NEW YORK/BLOOMINGTON, Minnesota (Reuters) - The U.S. shopping frenzy known as "Black Friday" kicked off at a more civilized hour, with some shoppers welcoming decisions by retailers such as Target Corp
While the shift was denounced by some store employees and traditionalists as pulling people away from families on Thanksgiving (held on the fourth Thursday of November), many shoppers welcomed the chance to shop before midnight or in the early hours of the morning.
"I think it's better earlier. People are crazier later at midnight," Renee Ruhl, 52, a hotel worker, said at a Target in Orlando, Florida, where she was already heading to her car with an air hockey game loaded in her shopping cart at 9:30 p.m., or 2-1/2 hours before the chain opened last year.
The stakes are high for U.S. retailers - who can earn more than a third of their annual sales in the holiday season of which Black Friday marks the unofficial start - as they fight for a share of consumer spending that many economists don't expect to grow as much as last year.
The National Retail Federation forecast a 4.1 percent increase in retail sales during the November-December holiday period this year, down from a 5.6 percent increase seen in 2011.
In a separate survey, the NRF said 147 million people would shop on Friday through Sunday, down from 152 million the same weekend last year. It did not say how many planned to shop on Thursday.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc's
The earlier hours lured people who had not previously considered braving the crowds on Black Friday, Jason Buechel, a senior executive in the retail practice of consultancy Accenture, said of his observations from malls.
SUPER BOWL OF SHOPPING
And they also made things more orderly.
"There's no stress, no bustling, no people busting down doors," Richard Stargill, a 43-year-old construction worker from New York, said, referring to incidents such as the 2008 death of a Walmart worker who was trampled by a mob of eager shoppers.
For Edward Segura, 50, who was at a Target in Tucson with his wife Belinda, 44, and their daughter, the earlier hours were a blessing.
"We'll shop tonight and tomorrow is freed up for enjoyment. I get to play golf and we're going to a football game later," said Segura. "My wife thinks of this as the Super Bowl of shopping, but I'd rather do something else."
Like many shoppers on Black Friday, Segura was looking at televisions. But electronics were not the only hot sellers.
A Macy's employee, who declined to be named, said the crowds were huge and more than she was expecting.
And at the Target on Elston Avenue on Chicago's Northwest side, known as one of the highest-volume Target stores in the chain, the $25 Dirt Devil vacuum that normally goes for $39.99 was sold out, though there were still several large televisions. Items such as $2 towels were selling well, as were blankets, kids' slippers and pajamas.
As of 2 a.m. Central Time, Minnesota's Mall of America was poised to beat the record number of shoppers - 217,000 - it attracted the same day last year, according to the mall's public relations director Dan Jasper.
Not everybody was happy with Black Friday starting earlier.
A petition asking Target to "save Thanksgiving" had 371,606 supporters as of Thursday afternoon.
Mike Labounty, 34, in Lyndonville, Vermont, was shopping on Thursday night for 32-inch Emerson televisions and other items on sale at the Walmart in Littleton, New Hampshire, with his partner, Darcy Mitchell.
"I think it should go back to Friday," he said. "It breaks up families. Just look at us — our kids are with their grandparents and they should be with us on Thanksgiving, but we're here getting them a TV."
Some workers were also using the day to send a message.
OUR Walmart - a coalition of current and former Wal-Mart staff seeking better wages, benefits and working conditions - has staged months of protests outside stores and has targeted "Black Friday" for action across the country.
Those actions come as consumers remain worried about high unemployment, possible tax increases and government spending cuts in 2013. Also, the lasting effects of Sandy, the storm that lashed the densely populated East Coast in late October, could cut into how much shoppers can spend.
According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, two-thirds of shoppers said they were planning to spend the same amount as last year or were unsure about spending plans, while 21 percent intend to spend less and only 11 percent plan to spend more.
"I definitely have more money this year," said Amy Balser, 26, at the head of the line outside the Best Buy Co Inc
"I definitely don't think (the economy) has bounced back anywhere near as much as it needs to, but I see some improvement," she said.
Many shoppers used technology to help stretch their budgets, employing smartphones or other mobile gadgets to find deals.
At a Walmart in Bloomington, Minnesota, Derek M, 26, said he had used his smartphone to compare prices ever since the phone had that capability. He was at the store mainly for a deal on a Compaq AMD laptop for $179.
(Additional reporting by Jessica Wohl in Chicago, Paul Ingram in Tucson, Arizona, Jason McLure in Littleton, New Hampshire, and Barbara Liston in Orlando, Florida; Writing by Brad Dorfman; Editing by Nick Macfie and David Holmes)