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Thanksgiving openings appear to succeed

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Friday, November 29, 2013 - 11:00am

The first takeaway from Black Friday 2013: Thanksgiving is changing.

For all the talk of shopping boycotts -- on the grounds that family values exceed the desire to save a few bucks -- American consumerism has triumphed. The crowds that typically appear before dawn Friday showed up at what's traditionally dinnertime on Thursday.

Mall managers across the country said shoppers showed up in droves this year, only they all did it earlier. That led to a smoother flow of traffic throughout the night instead of the usual rush at midnight. Edward Larson, who manages a J.C. Penney in Great Falls, Mont., said customers were "more purposeful and not as frenzied."

The Town East Mall in the suburbs of Dallas opened at 8 p.m., and thousands made their way to Macy's, Sears and J.C. Penney. Their demeanor was more calm and reserved than in years past, said mall manager Chad Hastings.

"This is definitely a game-changer as far as what the customer expects now," Hastings said. "In future years, the customer will expect stores to open at 8 o'clock."

The earlier start also meant that foot traffic dropped in the morning's early hours, an unusual sight. South Florida's Aventura Mall was nearly empty at 5 a.m.

At a Target in Philadelphia, Qiana Roberts skipped a family dinner for a spot in line. Collin Cook ate extra early on Thursday to join the hordes at J.C. Penney in Wayne, N.J.

Shoppers say workers should be home with their loved ones. But they'll head out anyway.

"I don't like that the hours are earlier. I think people should be able to be with their families on Thanksgiving," said Kim Schaefer as she shopped for shoes at J.C. Penney.

And that's why businesses are throwing up their hands and saying: It's not us. It's you.

Randy Tennison manages the Jordan Creek Town Center near Des Moines, Iowa. He remembers how, for years, they opened at 5 a.m. That got pushed back to midnight in 2006, then 8 p.m. this year.

His family has adapted to the change and made Thanksgiving a lunch affair, but this year he had to cut that even shorter.

He doesn't mind, because it's good for business. Foot traffic at his mall last night was 11% higher than last year. He's accepted that Thanksgiving shopping is becoming a tradition of its own.

"I'm not worried. People still have the option of doing what they want," Tennison said. "Retailers are reacting to what customers want. Many people want to stay at home and be with their families, and that's great. Others want to go shopping, and that's great too."

Being better prepared for the crowds also means having more workers around. At the Staten Island Mall in New York, spokesman David Albertson said the big difference this year was "manpower."

"We're in the business to serve. When the customers are asking us to be more accommodating, we listen to them," he said.

Ishamar Dorma cut out of Thanksgiving festivities a little early to hit the West Philadelphia Target around 4 p.m., four hours before the doors would open. He turned 23 on Wednesday and wanted to get himself a belated birthday gift: a large, LED high-definition TV.

"It's a good birthday gift," said Dorma, whose sheepish grin briefly emerged from an orange knit scarf and striped hat.

Here are the kinds of discounts that beckoned them: A 50-inch Element TV going for $229 instead of $600. Half-carat diamond earrings priced at $79. Side deals like Target's $100 gift card with every iPad.

That last one convinced Charlie Wu to don his parka and brave the freezing weather outside a Target in New Jersey.

"I'll buy as many iPads as they'll let me buy," he said. Some will go out as gifts. But he said he'll take advantage of the temporarily low prices and sell the rest online.

On the bright side, shoppers said they felt a calmer experience this holiday season. The typical rush into stores gave way to cool-headed families meandering through store aisles, perhaps still under the sleep-inducing effect of a full-sized dinner of turkey and cranberry sauce.

"I wouldn't have gone out on Friday -- it's too crowded," said Ann Delrio, who took to a J.C. Penney in New Jersey.

The sales numbers showed the calm as well. Disney Store executive Paul Gainer watched as the nation's 216 locations reported their transactions every hour to the company's headquarters.

"It's felt very controlled and spread out with the extended hours," he said.

The lines were still long though. And there were reports of fights. In Claypool Hill, Va., police say a knife fight over a parking space outside a Wal-Mart led to one person stabbed in the arm and two arrests.

On Twitter, the hashtag #WalmartFights became a top search term as people posted videos of violent brawls over low-priced products.

-- CNNMoney's Annalyn Kurtz and Jennifer Liberto contributed to this story

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