But as the most-sought-after merchandise disappeared, so apparently did the thickest of crowds, with shoppers and some retail officials saying it appeared that fewer were out later to browse or hunt for bargains.
"We were packed before midnight," said marketing chief Kathy Smith at 400-store King of Prussia Mall, the East Coast's largest indoor shopping mall, whose 12:01 a.m. opening was four hours earlier than last year's.
By mid-morning, however, the wing known as the Plaza appeared to have decidedly thinner crowds flocking to its shops than was the case the same time a year ago.
That relative tranquility was absent only at stores where discounts were deemed irresistible (Aeropostale had a 60-percent-off sale, and its bright red bags were ubiquitous in the hands of shoppers), or where products were considered must-haves (the Apple store was steadily jammed and sweaty like a locker room, with people walking out even with products sold at full price.)
Customers across the region also reported that stores open overnight appeared to have largely emptied out within a few hours of experiencing an early surge of people seeking so-called "doorbuster" deals.
"I think the strong numbers we had at midnight will certainly dilute what we get the rest of the day," said Smith, who expected customer traffic to rise overall.
A Best Buy that opened at midnight in King of Prussia had relatively few shoppers a few hours later but still had ample stock of discounted video games, said Joelle Newell, 39, who had made off with Madden 13 for her 16-year-old son, Jourey, a junior at Upper Merion High School.
"It was a little quiet," Newell said of the electronics retailer, which struck her as peculiar, since a year earlier she had shown up at midnight and it was packed.
Elsewhere, too, frenetic scenes had calmed before dawn, even if earlier things had gotten a bit out of control.
About 5 a.m., a Toys R Us in South Philadelphia was nearly empty as employees restocked shelves after an early rush. The hottest seller, according to an employee: A 7-inch tablet from Coby selling for $70, down from $150 retail.
The Walmart on Columbus Boulevard in Philadelphia also had become less busy. Shortly after it opened at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving, a fistfight reportedly took place inside, apparently over TVs that were selling for about $200. No one was arrested, but people were knocked down, an eyewitness said.
In South Georgia, a Walmart was the scene of a pushing, yelling and grabbing match as customers got exuberant over deals involving a cell phone with a prepaid, unlimited usage plan, according to the Associated Press. A video circulating online showed the loud outbreak of tossed elbows in Moultrie. No one, apparently, was injured.
At 8 a.m., as part of an effort led by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, about 75 protesters marched outside the entrance of the South Philadelphia Walmart, making it difficult for customers to walk in and out with shopping carts. The protesters were calling attention to low wages and benefits, as part of a nationwide action to stage similar protests at Walmarts on Black Friday.
They chanted slogans such as, "One percent, we will rage, pay our workers a living wage!" and held posters with such messages as, "Exploitation of workers is how the wages are so low."
In a statement, Walmart U.S. president and chief executive Bill Simon said his stores had drawn larger crowds than last year.
"The work of our associates is even more impressive when you consider they served approximately 22 million customers on Thursday," Simon said.
Deep discounts were rewarded with large crowds at the Kohl's in Morton, Delaware County, at 10 a.m., where parking spots were scarce and the line for registers inside was long.
"It's busy, but it's very organized," said Kat Lockwood, 28, an emergency medical technician from Glenolden who came straight from her overnight shift and spent an hour scooping up bargains for her children. "I saved double what I spent."
The pressure of Internet competition is one reason stores have resorted to earlier openings, making for a less crowded scene on the ground Black Friday. That was not lost on mother and daughter Sandra and Shanna Wadsworth as they stood in line together about 11 a.m. at the Macy's housewares department at Springfield Mall.
Sandra Wadsworth, 54, said they used to hit the stores together early every Black Friday "until she got on the Internet."
"I think you can get as good deals online except for stuff you want to see," her 33-year-old daughter said.
"I miss it," her mother said. "It was a tradition. It was fun."
Black Friday unfolded at a more leisurely pace on Walnut Street in Center City, where shoppers holding Starbucks cups strolled between stores, some of which didn't open much earlier than usual.
Horace Robinson, 41, appreciated the relative calm in the morning. "So far, stores haven't been crowded," said Robinson, who had been out with his mother, Mary, since 4 a.m.
The Robinsons, who live in Queens, N.Y., had spent Thanksgiving with family in Philadelphia, which they consider a far nicer post-turkey-day shopping destination than going into Manhattan.
"We actually look forward to this every year," said Mary Robinson, 64.
Ja-mice Nelson, 35, was thrilled about a sale she had stumbled upon at the Center City Macy's for her children: Winter coats reduced from $85 to $16.99 each.
"That was really, really awesome, for four kids," Nelson said, showing off a girl's white puffy coat with fur trim.
At Cherry Hill Mall in the afternoon, the problem wasn't the people - it was the lack of parking.
Cherry Hill attorney David Weinberg, completing a shopping spree with his 11-year-old and 13-year-old daughters in tow, said the inside of the mall was far less congested than the lots outside, where the development of large restaurants has eaten into the supply of available spaces. "The most difficult part," Weinberg said, "was finding parking."
The most difficult part for some other shoppers was taking part in Black Friday at all.
Mitch Baker, 40, of Havertown, who works in finance for a college, was holding a young son in the Gap store at the Suburban Square shopping center in Ardmore, anxious for his wife to be finished scouring for bargains.
"I'm a proponent of online shopping now," said Baker, adding of Black Friday: "It's too crazy."
He might have had a jovial chat about such displeasure with Mona Pasternack, a Manhattan resident originally from Elkins Park, who was at Surbuban Square just to meet famly for lunch.
"I'm not going in any of these shops," Pasternack said. "I hate Black Friday. I did most of my shopping online."
Interior designer Christina Funston of Penn Valley was with daughter Quinn, 14, but they were avoiding stores boasting Black Friday sales at Suburban Square.
"I find it stressful - just the thought of it," Quinn said. They had guests from New York and North Carolina the last two days, but they had left, so mother and daughter were enjoying a leisurely stroll of the shops.
Staff writers Maddie Hanna, Jan Hefler, and Frank Kummer contributed to this article.
Contact Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431 or email@example.com or @panaritism on Twitter.