US shoppers scrambled for bargains as "Black Friday" launched the retail sector's holiday season on Friday and triggered sporadic outbreaks of violence across the country.
Although there were no fatalities reported as in previous years, the annual frenzy for discounted items saw
tempers flare across the nation, with reports of fistfights, a stabbing and a shooting.
Local media reported that police shot a suspected shoplifter in Chicago, while a man was stabbed in Virginia in a fight over a parking spot at a branch of the Walmart retail giant. YouTube carried a video of unruly crowds at a Texas store.
In New Boston, Ohio, a woman was "knocked down" at a Walmart and took herself to the hospital, a police officer said. The officer said the woman was not seriously injured.
Violence had begun on Thursday night, as many stores opened their doors early to get a jump on the stampede.
Police in Las Vegas said a shopper leaving a store with a television set was shot by a thief while in Rialto, California, a police officer was injured trying to break up a fight in a carpark.
Shoppers in Manhattan meanwhile reported huge crowds as night-owls hunted for bargains.
"At three or four o'clock in the morning, it was very crazy. We went with the flow," said Jason Flores, who was carrying bags from Macy's and Zara, among others. "It's best not to have a plan. It makes it more fun."
Walmart meanwhile found itself the target of protests in Chicago, Dallas and other cities over low pay.
Organizers said tens of thousands of people marched nationwide, spread across 1,500 stores in 46 states. More than 110 people were arrested, they said.
"Walmart jobs should be good-paying jobs, family-supporting jobs," Walter Turner, pastor of the New Spiritual Light Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago, said after his arrest at a protest, one of more than 110 reported across the country.
A Walmart spokesman defended the company's wages as "on the higher end of the retail average" and said the company promotes good performers.
This season's holiday shopping season is a full six days and one shopping weekend shorter than last year's due to the late Thanksgiving season.
Holiday shopping traditionally accounts for 20-40% of an individual retailer's annual sales, according to the National Retail Federation.
One consequence of the Thursday launch to the weekend, however, was somewhat lower shopping volumes on Friday morning, said Morningstar analyst RJ Hottovy.
"Traffic is down a little bit," said Hottovy, noting that some shoppers may also have stayed away due to cold weather and increased online shopping.
Analysts say shoppers are anxious following the October US government shutdown and near-default on US debt. On top of that, global economic growth remains tepid and US job growth has been unspectacular.
The National Retail Federation predicted that holiday shopping sales will increase 3.9% to $602.1 billion over the 2012 level.
That is better than the 3.5% growth in the 2012 season, but below the six to seven percent increases before the financial crisis.
Analyst Hottovy forecast that sales will grow at just three percent this season. He cited higher payroll taxes and concerns that the new health care law will result in higher costs.
"I think the low-middle income consumers are still facing a number of pressures," Hottovy said. "We do expect a slowdown."
Chris Christopher, director of consumer eeconomics at IHS Global Insight, predicted holiday retail sales will grow 3.2% above last year's.
But the 2012 season was depressed by Superstorm Sandy, concerns about Washington budgets and the Newtown, Connecticut slayings at an elementary school.
The 2013 season "is going to be okay," Christopher said.
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