Earlier store openings and blockbuster online sales on Thursday took some of the bang out of the actual Black Friday this year.

Many shoppers who hit stores Friday morning were pleasantly surprised when they didn’t find the typical day-after-Thanksgiving mayhem. But major retailers had already done plenty of business by then, boasting of record-setting online sales on Thanksgiving Day and a strong showing at Thursday night store openings.

Minneapolis-based Target said Thanksgiving was its biggest day ever for online sales, buoyed in part by its offer of free shipping on any size order. And Wal-Mart said that day was the No. 2 for online sales, surpassed only by last year’s Cyber Monday.

“Online is taking a bigger chunk,” said Chris Christopher, an economist with IHS Global Insight. “On top of what is happening with Gray Thursday [stores that open Thanksgiving night], that makes Black Friday less intense.”

Online sales rose 14.3 percent on Thanksgiving Day compared with the same day a year ago, according to IBM Digital Analytics Benchmark. About a third of those sales came from mobile devices.

But the surge in online traffic created challenges for some retailers, most notably Best Buy. The Richfield-based electronics chain’s website went offline for more than an hour Friday morning and again later in the afternoon as the retailer hustled to fix some performance issues.

Still, Black Friday was expected to be a bigger shopping day overall than Thanksgiving. More than 95 million shoppers were expected to shop on Black Friday, compared with 26 million shoppers on Thursday, according to a survey for the National Retail Federation. In total, six in 10 U.S. adults are expected to shop at some point between Thursday and Sunday.

“Black Friday is still going to be a very big day because it’s longer,” Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly said Thursday night at a store in Roseville, referring to the fact that stores are open all day on Friday compared to shorter evening hours on Thanksgiving night.

At the Mall of America on Friday morning, some shoppers who braced themselves for big shoulder-to-shoulder crowds didn’t find them. That was likely because the mall opened at 6 p.m. Thursday night and some stores stayed open all night.

“I’m less overwhelmed than I thought I’d be,” said Jeanine Schweiss, 35, of Woodbury, while at the Disney Store cradling a selection of toys from “Frozen,” one of the hottest licensed brands this holiday season.

But Dan Jasper, a mall spokesman, said the mall was still quite busy from about 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Friday. Last year, he noted, the Mall of America welcomed 230,000 shoppers between Thanksgiving and Black Friday.

“I’m pretty confident we’re going to beat that this year,” he said, adding that traffic was up about 3 percent as of late Friday afternoon.

Menards was one of the retailers that stayed closed on Thanksgiving. So by 8:30 a.m. Friday, the parking lot of its store in St. Paul was jam-packed. All of the shopping carts were taken, and the store was already sold out of some sale items such as a shop vac and an electric drill.

Hundreds of shoppers milled the wide aisles with circulars in hand. And an army of bibbed workers directed the lost and wide-eyed to the nearest advertised bargain or special gift.

After a busy store opening at 6 p.m. Thursday, Macy’s stores began seeing traffic peter out around midnight. The stores stayed open all night, and a second wave of shoppers showed up around 8 a.m. Friday, said Helen Eddy, a Macy’s district vice president who oversees stores in the Twin Cities.

Cashmere sweaters, women’s shoes and comforter sets were some of the big sellers, she said. And, curiously, she noticed that more men seemed to buy suits that night than in previous years judging by the busier tailoring department.

Target, which also opened stores at 6 p.m. Thursday, two hours earlier than last year, said it sold 1,800 TVs and 2,000 video games per minute in the first hour after stores opened. Some of its other top sellers, both online and in stores, included iPads, Beats by Dre Solo headphones and the Nikon L330 camera. Online sales were up 40 percent on Thanksgiving compared with a year ago.

Brian Cornell, Target’s CEO, said in a phone interview Thursday night that he was heartened to see shoppers picking up not just deeply discounted electronics and toys, but also home goods and apparel.

“The mix of items in the basket, while really early in the night, is something I’m encouraged by,” he said.

More than 22 million customers shopped at Wal-Mart stores on Thanksgiving, which is more than the number of people who visited Disneyland in an entire year, the company noted. Tablets, TVs, sheets and children’s apparel were some of the top categories of the night. And, as expected, the Snow Glow Elsa doll from “Frozen” was one of the top toys of the night.

“People have been trained to wait for this week to buy things,” said Stephen Baker, an analyst with the NPD Group, noting that the customers he saw shopping Thursday night were focused mostly on the items that stores had discounted the most.

But some shoppers made a point of heading to independent stores on a day dominated by larger retailers.

One of them was Nancy Herbst of Edina, who shopped at Patina’s southwest Minneapolis store on Friday morning with some relatives.

“I always go out to the local neighborhood stores and never go out to the big box stores on Black Friday,” she said. After Patina, Herbst headed across the street to Zinnia Folk Arts.

Anne Damon, the owner of Zinnia, said she was expecting an even bigger turnout the next day for Small Business Saturday, when she will be giving customers on her e-mail list 20 percent off every purchase over $25.

“It really highlights small businesses,” she said.

 

Staff writers Joe Carlson, Dee DePass and Mike Hughlett contributed to this report.