Shoppers are hitting the stores on Thanksgiving as retailers under pressure look for ways to poach shoppers from their rivals.
As the holiday shopping season officially kicked off, retailers are counting on a lift from a better economy. But they're also looking beyond economic data and mapping out ways to pick up sales from other retailers as Amazon expands its reach.
That can mean opening earlier than rivals on the holidays or even jumping into new product categories. So shoppers may find some surprises: toys and TVs at J.C. Penney, Barbies at Best Buy, kitchen appliances like wine refrigerators at B.J.'s.
At Macy's Herald Square in Manhattan, it was the deals like cosmetic and perfume sets from $10 to $20 as well as 40 percent off on boots and shoes that drew attention. Its Apple shop was packed too, with deals on gadgets like the Apple Watch.
Tiffany Lloyd, in town from Columbia, Maryland, was visiting tourist sites when she realized stores were open.
"This is not a traditional Thanksgiving. We ate pizza," said Lloyd, who was buying a pair of Naturalizer shoes at 40 percent off and said she planned to buy three more pairs. She said she also picked up sweaters on sale at Old Navy.
Despite the early crowds at stores, analysts at Bain say Amazon is expected to take half of the holiday season's sales growth. And Amazon is the top destination for people to begin holiday shopping, according to a September study by market research firm NPD Group.
"The retailers are in survival mode. It's about stealing each other's market share," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD. "Amazon is the Grinch. They're stealing the growth."
Abi and Sush Gyawali — both 27-year-old biology graduate students at the University of Missouri — were among hundreds of people who lined up outside J.C. Penney in Columbia, Missouri, before the store opened at 2 p.m. Thursday. Abi Gyawali normally shops online on Amazon or Best Buy for Cyber Monday, where he said he finds some of the best deals.
But he said the couple wanted to check out the scene at the mall before friends came over to share a meal. He and his wife planned to just collect coupons that were being handed out, but ended up getting a discounted air fryer.
With the jobless rate at a 17-year-low of 4.1 percent and consumer confidence stronger than a year ago, analysts project healthy sales increases for November and December. The National Retail Federation trade group expects sales for that period to at least match last year's rise of 3.6 percent and estimates online spending and other non-store sales will rise 11 to 15 percent.
Amazon is expected to be a big beneficiary as it cements loyalty among its Prime members and moves into new services and private-label merchandise. That leaves stores looking at rivals to see where they can pick up sales. There are extra dollars up for grabs this year, after thousands of store locations have closed and several retailers filed for bankruptcy protection.
Target CEO Brian Cornell recently noted that up to $60 billion in consumer spending will be up for the taking in the next few years, and said the chain has been picking up market share in such areas as clothing.
Greg Foran, CEO of Walmart's U.S. division, said that the retail giant's holiday shopping season appeared to be off to a good start. It got things going in the first minutes of Thursday with an online sales event that featured a range of deals from toys to TVs to slow cookers and Google Home mini gadgets.
"We have a bit of momentum and we had a good kickoff online," Foran told The Associated Press, "and with a bit of luck we are going to have a good 24 hours and be ship-shape for the weekend, and go from here to the 25th of December."
The Thanksgiving weekend, when stores go all-out to attract shoppers, can be an indication of how well they'll do through the season. About 69 percent of Americans, or 164 million people, intend to shop at some point during the five-day period from Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday, according to a survey released by the National Retail Federation. It expects Black Friday to remain the busiest day, with about 115 million people planning to shop then.
Judy St. Antoine, 60, of St. Petersburg, Florida, said she arrived at the J.C. Penney in her city about 10 minutes before the store's 2 p.m. opening. There were already two lines of a couple hundred people each waiting. St. Antoine said she came "for the sale," and that she'll finish up her Thanksgiving afterward.
Mary Bergeron, 62, of Tampa, bought an oil-less fryer, a waffle maker and a steamer at JC Penney, and was headed back for more.
"It's a tradition. We come here every year," she said, adding that she'd eaten turkey at noon. "It's crazy, there are so many people and it gets tense. It's fun."
Some retailers are using the weekend to test new product areas: Penney has TVs and consumer electronics like game consoles as doorbusters for Thanksgiving and Black Friday only, one example of what Penney's Senior Vice President James Starke called "market share plays."
Chris Baldwin, CEO of BJ's Wholesale Club, says it is offering more toys and clothes, including key national brands in areas like casual athletic wear.
"There's no question that consumer spending has started to tick up and confidence is a little bit better, which is terrific, but we are also seeing some benefit from other retailers," he said.