A busy - and controversial - Black Friday wound down in the D.C. area late Friday. Across the region, shoppers headed home from malls and stores with gifts for loved ones (and themselves).
And at several Walmart stores here and across the country, they had encountered protesters in the parking lots.
The protest was planned to coincide with Black Friday. Like several large retailers, Walmart started offering door buster deals on Thursday. So instead of being with their families, employees like Barbara Elliott had to work.
"My family wanted me to be there," Elliott told News4's Megan McGrath. "Some of my children came from out-of-state to be with me. And I was very tired and I wanted to be with them."
"I spent the day working in Walmart stores yesterday. So did she. Where is family values anymore?" said protester Cynthia Murray. "It's no longer Black Friday, it's Black Thursday."
Today's protest is part of a larger campaign against the retailer....and there were similar walk outs and rallies planned in other states. Employees say they want change-- specifically health benefits and higher wages.
As the group marched along the back of the parking they were approached by members of the store's management team. During an exchange, demonstrators asked for assurances that employees would not be retaliated against for participating in the rally. Store manager Bobby Williams told the crowd that employees are always respected.
"Walmart stands behind its associates...our associates know their voices are always heard," Williams said.
Walmart officials told News4's Darcy Spencer that, in spite of the protests, 2012's Black Friday was the best one the retailer had ever had.
Walmart was not the only store to begin Black Friday on Thursday. Across the region there were crowds and lines at several stores that had, for the first time ever, opened their doors for post-Thanksgiving sales on the holiday itself.
At Target in the Potomac Yard Shopping Center in Alexandria, a long line of shoppers waited for the doors to open at 9 p.m. The first in line were rewarded with bargains, getting tickets that allowed them to buy a 50-inch TV at a special sale price, reported News4's Erika Gonzalez.
"It's just that animal instinct, that hunger for sales -- you are on the prowl," said a shopper named Mario, who was one of those who scored a ticket.
One advantage to being very, very early: Mario reported that he was in the store and out again - with a TV - in only 10 minutes.
Black Friday Shopping Starts Early
Target stores around the country opened their doors at 9 p.m. on the holiday, three hours earlier than last year.
For many years, retailers such as Target opened at midnight or in the wee hours on the day after Thanksgiving, offering big sales to moonlight shoppers. For many of those shoppers, "Black Friday" shopping was a tradition.
However, this year, many of the nation's largest retailers opened before the Thanksgiving leftovers had a chance to cool: Sears, which didn't open on Thanksgiving last year, opened at 8 p.m. and will stay open until 10 p.m. on Black Friday. Toys R Us opened at 8 p.m., an hour earlier than last year.
The earlier hours are an effort by stores to make shopping as convenient as possible for Americans, who they fear won't spend freely during the two-month holiday season in November and December because of economic uncertainty. Many shoppers are worried about high unemployment and a package of tax increases and spending cuts known as the ``fiscal cliff'' that will take effect in January unless Congress passes a budget deal by then. At the same time, Americans have grown more comfortable shopping on websites that offer cheap prices and the convenience of being able to buy something from smartphones, laptops and tablet computers from just about anywhere.
That's put added pressure on brick-and-mortar stores, which can make up to 40 percent of their annual revenue during the holiday shopping season, to give consumers a compelling reason to leave their homes. That's becoming more difficult: the National Retail Federation, an industry trade group, estimates that overall sales in November and December will rise 4.1 percent this year to $586.1 billion, or about flat with last year's growth. But the online part of that is expected to rise 15 percent to $68.4 billion, according to Forrester Research.
As a result, brick-and-mortar retailers have been trying everything they can to lure consumers into stores. Some stores tested the earlier hours last year, but this year more retailers opened their doors late on Thanksgiving or at midnight on Black Friday. In addition to expanding their hours, many also are offering free layaways and shipping, matching the cheaper prices of online rivals and updating their mobile shopping apps with more information.
The earlier openings were controversial. Change.org told Upstart Business Journal that dozens of online petitions had been started on its site asking retailers to delay the sales. The petitions argued that employees need time with their families before the long hours of the holiday retail season set in, and that consumers didn't need the few extra hours of shopping.
Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, has been one of the biggest targets of protests against holiday hours. Many of the company's stores are open 24 hours, but the company is offering early bird specials that once were reserved for Black Friday at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving instead.
The issue is part of a broader campaign against the company's treatment of workers that's being waged by a union-backed group called OUR Walmart, which includes former and current workers. It's staging demonstrations and walkouts at hundreds of stores on Black Friday.
But retailers say they are giving shoppers what they want. Dave Tovar, a Wal-Mart spokesman, said that the discounter learned from shoppers that they want to start shopping right after Thanksgiving dinner. Then, they want to have time to go to bed before they wake up to head back out to the stores.
Some local shoppers told Gonzalez that they would follow the deals -- even if they started earlier on Thanksgiving Day.
Anne sat in the cold for hours to earn her spot in line. And the reason for that was practical, she said.
"I work two jobs, I have a mortgage," she said. "And this is the time of year I can afford the electronics that I need."