Shortly before 5 a.m., Alexis Hawkinson pulled into the parking lot of a Kohl's department store in St. Louis Park and met her in-laws for the return of a family tradition: early morning shopping on Black Friday.

"We decided to beat the crowd," said Hawkinson, 29, of Plymouth. "We thought it would be quieter rather than going in the middle of the day when things are picked over."

They were right. Only about a half-dozen cars were in the Kohl's parking lot. A decade ago, early mornings on Black Friday produced chaotic scenes of throngs of shoppers trying to get inside stores, scoop up heavily discounted items and move on to the next place on their list.

But in recent years, retailers began discounting earlier and offering the same deals online as in stores. The frenzy around Black Friday diminished and, last year, pandemic-related shutdowns dampened Black Friday as an "event" even more.

For both retailers and health experts, the behavior of shoppers this Black Friday will provide insights regarding how Americans feel about the economy and the pandemic.

Surveys in recent weeks have shown that, as usual, consumers expect to spend more on holiday gifts and foods than last year. But with inflation at its highest level in 30 years, higher prices will account for a bigger portion of the gain than in the past.

Sizable groups of people, not as many as in pre-pandemic years but not far off, stood around entrances of the Mall of America in Bloomington before its 7 a.m. opening. Foot traffic by midday was more than double what the MOA saw last year, a mall executive said.

Throughout the region, stores and malls got busier as the day wore on. Twin Cities Premium Outlets in Eagan was packed Friday afternoon, with many finding it hard to get a parking space. Numerous stores limited the number of people allowed inside, creating long lines in the cold.

Kari Tianen, 37, of Burnsville, and Jess Davich, 43, of Eagan, who are sisters, endured the cold in a line outside the Under Armour Factory House at the outlet mall. They shopped mostly online last year and said they were happy to get out to grab gifts for their kids.

"This just kind of starts out the holiday season," Davich said.

"We have never seen it this crazy," Tianen said. "It's great to see all those people but also [COVID-19] numbers are up, so be cautious."

Some people headed to places they believed would be less crowded. At the 50th and France shopping district, Julie Millikan browsed several stores and planned to meet an uncle for lunch at a nearby restaurant. "I like going to places like this if I'm going to shop on Black Friday because they're quiet," she said.

Inside Coccinella, a Mediterranean gift shop at 50th and France, traffic in the first hour or so of the day was more than expected. Umut Kaplan, who was helping his parents, the store's owners, said they had even higher hopes for Saturday, which many retailers and credit card merchants promote for shopping at small businesses.

For many people, shopping with family members, particularly those who are visiting from a distance, is a ritual of the long Thanksgiving weekend.

Letitia Holloway, of Chicago, traveled to her daughter's home in Wisconsin for Thanksgiving, and then the two of them hit the Mall of America on Friday morning. "The crowds and seeing everybody waiting patiently in line, it was just exciting," she said.

Annie Olson of Edina has shopped on Black Friday at the mall a few times. She stood in line with a large group of family members, including her nieces and daughters, for two hours before the doors opened at 7 a.m. "It's nice to be out," Olson said. "We really came for the fun."

Kate Kuyper and several family members drove from Northfield to visit Southdale Center in Edina before 8 a.m. They split apart for a few hours of shopping, then got back together. "We like it much better now that [Black Friday] is quieter," Kuyper said.

There was a short line outside of the Best Buy in Maplewood before the staff opened doors at 6. Heather Cassell, 42, of Little Canada, hadn't planned to go Black Friday shopping, but she decided at the last minute to join her sons at Best Buy. "This is going to be a small Christmas this year," she said as she sipped a warm drink.

Cassell decided to buy a sound bar before heading to other stores. She used to go out for Black Friday shopping and waited outside in line, but she stopped in recent years because it got too chaotic. "This is more calm," she said.

Daniella Valencia, 21, who was visiting from Mexico, decided to snag a laptop for herself as she shopped with her mother Friday morning.

"This year it's all about me," she said with a laugh.

The same appeared to be true for Zack Van Pelt, who walked into Macy's department store in Southdale with his girlfriend right at its 6 a.m. opening. The couple headed over to look at men's suits. Asked if he was sure he could find a deal, Van Pelt said, "What's not on sale?"

Leslie Cheney of St. Louis Park said she increasingly shops online to find gifts for friends and relatives. Her annual, early-morning visit to Southdale on Black Friday is for herself.

"Shopping for myself, I like to see things in person," she said.