Early start to US "Black Friday" shopping welcomed by some, not all

* NRF sees holiday sales up 4.1 pct

* Mixed opinions on earlier hours

* Dirt Devils sell out before TVs

NEW YORK/CHICAGO, Nov 23 (Reuters) - The U.S. shopping

frenzy known as "Black Friday" kicked off at a more civilized

hour welcomed by some shoppers this year, with retailers like

Target Corp and Toys R Us moving their openings

earlier into Thursday night.

While the shift was denounced by some store employees and

traditionalists as pulling people away from families on

Thanksgiving, many shoppers welcomed the chance to shop before

midnight or in the wee hours of the morning.

"I think it's better earlier. People are crazier later at

midnight. And I get tired at midnight," Renee Ruhl, 52, a hotel

worker, said at a Target in Orlando, Florida, where she was

already heading back to her car with an air hockey game loaded

in her shopping cart at 9:30 p.m., or 2-1/2 hours before the

chain opened last year.

Retailers have been in a race to get a kickoff to what is

considered the unofficial start of the holiday shopping season

as they try to fight for consumer spending that is not expected

to grow as much as last year.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc's U.S. discount stores, which have been

open on Thanksgiving Day since 1988, offered some "Black Friday"

deals at 8 p.m. local time and special deals on some

electronics, like Apple Inc iPads, at 10 p.m. Target

moved its opening from midnight to 9 p.m. on Thursday and Toys R

Us is opened at 8 p.m.

The earlier hours attracted customers who had not previously

considered braving the crowds on Black Friday, Jason Buechel, a

senior executive in Accenture's Retail Practice, said of his

observations from the malls. Warm weather was also likely

helping to bring out the crowds.

Big ticket electronics were not the only hot sellers.

At Macy's in Herald Square, the line at the Estee

Lauder counter was four deep shortly after its midnight

opening.

And at the Target on Elston Avenue on Chicago's Northwest

side, known as one of the highest-volume Target stores in the

entire chain, the $25 Dirt Devil vacuum that normally goes for

$39.99 was gone, while there were still several large

televisions. Items such as $2 towels were selling well, so were

blankets, kids' slippers and pajamas.

Store team leader Lee Crum said that it looked like people

who were there for the 9 p.m. event were staying longer.

"These are the folks that are Christmas shopping, you can

see it's a family event," he said. "At midnight it was one

person, coming in for one item."

The stakes are obviously high for U.S. retailers, which can

earn more than a third of their annual sales in the holiday

season.

The National Retail Federation forecast a 4.1 percent

increase in retail sales during the November-December holiday

period this year, down from the 5.6 percent increase seen in

2011.

In a separate survey, NRF said 147 million people would shop

Friday through Sunday, down from 152 million on Black Friday

weekend last year. The survey did not say how many shoppers

planned to hit the stores on Thursday.

"SAVE THANKSGIVING"

Consumers heading into the holiday shopping season remain

worried about high unemployment and possible tax increases and

government spending cuts in 2013. Also, lasting effects of

Sandy, the storm that lashed the densely populated East Coast in

late October, could cut into how much shoppers can spend.

According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, two-thirds of shoppers

said they were planning to spend the same amount as last year or

were unsure about spending plans, while 21 percent intend to

spend less and 11 percent plan to spend more.

Throughout stores, shoppers could be seen using smartphones

or other mobile gadgets to help them navigate and look for good

deals.

At a Walmart in Bloomington, Minnesota, Derek M, 26, said he

has used his smartphone to compare ever since the phone had that

capability.

He was at the store mainly to take advantage of a deal on a

Compaq AMD laptop for $179. He said he felt the deals were

slightly better this year. For instance, a basic laptop he

looked at last year was $199, he said.

Not everybody was happy with Black Friday starting earlier.

A petition asking Target to "save Thanksgiving" had 371,606

supporters as of Thursday afternoon..

Mike Labounty, 34, Lyndonville, Vermont, was shopping on

Thursday night for 32-inch Emerson televisions and other items

on sale at the Walmart in Littleton, New Hampshire, with his

partner, Darcy Mitchell.

"I think it should go back to Friday," he said. "It breaks

up families. Just look at us-our kids are with their

grandparents and they should be with us on Thanksgiving, but

we're here getting them a TV."

Some workers were also using the day to send a message.

OUR Walmart - a coalition of current and former Wal-Mart

staff seeking better wages, benefits and working conditions, has

staged months of protests outside stores and has targeted "Black

Friday" for action across the country.

For more Reuters holiday coverage:

Most Popular in Business