By Nandita Bose and Nathan Layne
WEST HARTFORD, Conn./CHICAGO (Reuters) - Mall crowds were relatively thin on Black Friday in a sign of what has become the new normal in U.S. holiday shopping: the mad rush is happening the night of Thanksgiving and more consumers are picking up deals online.
Across the United States, shoppers were greeted by protesters at hundreds of stores - some calling for higher wages at Wal-Mart Stores Inc (WMT.N), others protesting the decision of a grand jury not to indict a white police officer in the August shooting of an 18-year-old unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri.
Most major retailers now open Thursday evening and are extending holiday deals rather than limiting them to one day. The result is a quieter experience on a day that has traditionally kicked off the holiday shopping season, and often drawn chaotic crowds.
Black Friday has ranked as the busiest U.S. shopping day in terms of sales and traffic since 2005, according to ShopperTrak. But as demand shifts to Thursday and even earlier in the month, the research firm predicts that "Super Saturday" on Dec. 20 will be the most active day this year.
"It just looks like any other weekend," said Angela Olivera, a 32-year-old housewife shopping for children's clothing at the Westfarms Mall near Hartford, Connecticut. "The kind of crowds we usually see are missing and this is one of the biggest malls here. I think people are just not spending a lot."
The crowds normally reserved for Black Friday morning appeared on Thursday night. For instance, more than 15,000 people lined up for the opening of the flagship store of Macy's Inc (M.N) in New York on Thursday. Retailers also said they were capturing more of the holiday budget online.
Shares of Macy's, Wal-Mart and Target Corp (TGT.N) closed from 2 to 3 percent higher on Friday as investors were encouraged by the long lines on Thursday night and executives made bullish comments about demand. Lower gasoline prices also helped boost the shares, analysts said.
"It's off to a good start," said Charlie O'Shea, a retail analyst at Moody's Investors Service, about the shopping season after visiting nearly two dozen stores in northern New Jersey over the past two days.
In downtown Chicago, police arrested 11 people associated with workers' rights group OUR Walmart for blocking traffic in front of a Walmart store. The protest was one of 1,600 planned across the United States by the group, which is pushing for higher wages and benefits for the retailer's employees.
"Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart you're no good. Treat your workers like you should," a crowd of several dozen shouted outside the store.
Wal-Mart spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan said: "The crowds are mostly made up of paid union demonstrators, and they do not represent the views of the 1.3 million associates" who work for the company, the largest private employer in the United States.
Buchanan also said one of the demonstrators hit a customer at the Chicago store, prompting a complaint to the police.
OUR Walmart representative Georges Tounou said the group carried out its protest peacefully.
Overall Black Friday online sales as of 1500 EST (2000 GMT) were up 8 percent from a year earlier, according to IBM Digital Analytics Benchmark. Online sales were up 14.3 percent on Thanksgiving Day.
Wal-Mart said Thursday was its second-highest online sales day ever after last year's Cyber Monday, which is the Monday after Thanksgiving, when online retailers promote bargains.
Target CEO Brian Cornell said his company rang up a record day of online sales on Thursday, and was seeing brisk demand in its stores. He said the company was selling 1,800 televisions a minute between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Thursday night.
Heavy traffic caused the Best Buy Co Inc (BBY.N) website to crash for a little over an hour earlier on Friday, but as of afternoon it was back up and running, a company spokesman said.
The National Retail Federation is projecting that sales for November and December will rise 4.1 percent to $616.9 billion, which would mark the most bountiful holiday season in three years. Holiday sales grew 3.1 percent in 2013.
Some shoppers said the price of gasoline - expected to go even lower after the price of crude oil fell to a multi-year low - could make them more inclined to spend.
"My budget is pretty tight this year and gas is a tremendous expense because I have to drive my daughter around a lot," Kristen Akeley, 46, who works at an elementary school, said while shopping for clothes at a Target in Connecticut.
"My gas expense has fallen from $150 a week to $80 a week and that is big savings at this time of the year."
(Additional reporting by Beth Pinsker in Ventnor, New Jersey; Editing by Jilian Mincer, Paul Simao and Matthew Lewis)