Mike Leighton was able to easily find a parking space at Southdale Center on Friday morning, one of the busiest shopping days of the year.

"I'm kind of surprised," said Leighton, of Chaska. "I thought it would be busier."

Southdale in Edina, like many other regional malls that opened on Thanksgiving night, didn't see the same huge lines and packed parking lots that once used to be the hallmarks of the morning of Black Friday. The earlier sales and promotions, as well as the growing popularity of online shopping deals, have siphoned off some of that traffic.

"In the 40 years I've studied Black Friday, I've never seen the crowds this soft on Friday morning," Marshal Cohen, a retail analyst with NPD Group, wrote in a blog post. "I've visited the same register at the same store at 7 a.m. for the past 15 years. Last year, I found 70 people waiting to check out at that register. This year, there were only seven people in that line. That says it all."

He added that the Thanksgiving night openings — when lines were long and shopping carts full — have really become the new Black Friday.

But some places were hopping on Friday, like Mall of America, which took a surprising stand this year and closed on Thanksgiving, opting instead to give most of the 15,000 mall employees the day off. It was hoping the move would bring back the traditional frenzy at the start of actual Black Friday.

When its doors opened at 5 a.m. Friday, an estimated 1,500 people were waiting outside the north entrance in a line that stretched to Ikea. The promise of gift cards and scratch cards with various prizes to the first shoppers through the door was an added incentive.

"It's much busier right now compared to this time last year," mall spokesman Dan Jasper said around 11:30 a.m. Friday. "Bringing back that magic and mystique to the Black Friday opening has really paid dividends. I also sense a different vibe this year — people seem to be having a lot of fun."

Meanwhile, online sales grew 12 percent on Thanksgiving Day this year to reach $1.93 billion and were expected to jump 11 percent on Black Friday to $3.05 billion, according to Adobe Digital Insights.

A number of retailers, including Minneapolis-based Target Corp. and Kohl's, said they saw double-digit growth in online sales on Thanksgiving Day, setting new company records for the day.

In addition, many Black Friday sales and promotions started well before Thanksgiving. So it's hard to draw any big conclusions from Black Friday weekend about how the overall holiday season is shaping up, said Charlie O'Shea, an analyst with Moody's.

"You have to look at the total picture," he said.

Still, he added that the big shopping weekend appears to be off to a strong start in terms of overall sales.

About 137.4 million Americans were planning to shop in stores or online at some point during the Thanksgiving weekend, slightly more than last year, according to a survey for the National Retail Federation. Black Friday was expected to be the most popular with 74 percent of shoppers planning to shop that day.

While Black Friday is not always as busy as it once was, it was still expected to be the busiest shopping day this year, according to ShopperTrak.

Even though it was closed on Thanksgiving, Mall of America officials are expecting overall traffic and sales throughout the weekend to be up — a reflection of both the expectation of higher holiday spending and of building up more excitement for opening on the actual Black Friday.

"I'm all for it," Patti Rissinger of Minnetonka said of the mall closing on Thanksgiving this year. "We're all about family. Spending time with them is what's important."

She and her family have been doing their Black Friday shopping at the Mall of America for the past 17 years and arrived at the mall early Friday. She joked that her son, who went out to shop Target's doorbuster deals Thursday night, was not allowed back in the house afterward.

"I agree that family is important, but I'm a shopper at heart," her son, Kris Klinger of Minneapolis, said in his defense.

Mark Ellis of Scottsdale, Ariz., who often visits his brother in Minnetonka for Thanksgiving, said the mall was much busier this morning than on any of the other 10 or so Black Fridays he's shopped there.

He got to the mall early enough to get one of the scratch-off tickets that the mall was giving out and won some tickets to Nickelodeon Universe.

"My nieces are going to love me for this," he said.

Rosedale Center, where about two-thirds of stores opened on Thanksgiving night, may have gotten a little boost in traffic since Mall of America was closed that night, said general manager Scott Michaelis. The mall's parking lots were pretty much full by about 8 p.m., two hours after the mall opened. There wasn't much of a 6 a.m. rush on Friday. But the parking lots were pretty much at capacity by about noon, he said.

At Rosedale, Black Friday weekend's pace is second only to the weekend before Christmas. He said many customers seemed to be buying more than just gifts.

"I think a lot of shoppers are treating themselves," he said.

Albertville Premium Outlets opened at 6 a.m. Friday with lines more than 20 shoppers deep at stores such as Kate Spade, Michael Kors and Ugg, said mall spokeswoman Sara Smith. By midmorning, parking lots were nearly 80 percent full.

"Traffic is consistent and steady," she said. "We're happy it's not too cold."

Sisters-in-law Terrie Silbaugh of Wayzata and Laura Silbaugh of Plymouth stood near their car in the outlet mall's parking lot taking photos of newly purchased North Face hoodies. "The whole store was 50 percent off," said Terrie. "I bought one for my son, and now I'm texting my daughter a picture of it to see if she wants me to get one for her boyfriend."

Terrie Silbaugh said she never would have found as many deals without her sister-in-law's assistance.

"My advice is to find someone like her who knows the deals and then tag along," she said.

Staff writer John Ewoldt contributed to this report.