By Hibah Yousuf
NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Shoppers turned out in droves at malls and big-box stores around the country, taking advantage of Black Friday deals as retailers opened their doors earlier than ever on Thanksgiving.
Toys R Us, Wal-Mart and Sears got a head start on the big shopping weekend by opening at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. That's even earlier than last year, when the toy retailer got a 9 p.m. start and Wal-Mart , the world's largest retailer, opened at 10 p.m.
The crowd at the Toys R Us in New York's Times Square started gathering about four hours ahead of the open, and was larger than it was last year, said CEO Jerry Storch.
"Our customers love the earlier opening," said Storch. "The atmosphere is celebratory and the crowds have been happy and excited to start their holiday shopping."
Shoppers started lining up at the Sears at North Point Mall in Alpharetta, Ga., around 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, and by the time the retailer opened, there was a crowd of about 500 people, said Nick Nicolosi, the mall's general manager.
A second rush began at 10:30 p.m., as shoppers lined up to enter the rest of the mall's retailers and Macy's ahead of their midnight openings.
Nicolosi estimated that the mall's parking lots were over half full when the clock struck midnight, and about 5,000 people were waiting to storm the stores -- the biggest Black Friday crowd North Point has seen since it began hosting its Rockin Shoppin Eve event five years ago.
Deals on home furnishings, including bed sets and rugs, and appliances were particularly popular this year, in addition to sweaters, boots and electronics.
At Macy's, Black & Decker waffle makers were among the items to sell out early, said Nicolosi. Shoppers also rushed to buy Keurig coffee makers and travel luggage.
"If the amount of bags is any indication, I think we'll have a big Black Friday this year," said Nicolosi.
The mall is expecting a third big wave of shoppers as JC Penney opens its doors at 6 a.m., two hours later than its Black Friday opening last year.
At malls around the country, Victoria's Secret seemed to be inviting large crowds. At North Grand Mall in Ames, Iowa, hoodies and yoga pants were sold out withing five minutes, according to a spokeswoman, and in Lufkin, Texas, the checkout lines stretched to the door even at 2 a.m., two hours after the store had opened.
Black Friday traditionally marks the start of the holiday shopping season each year. Stores consider it the most important time of the year, because they can make up to 40% of their annual sales in the November-December period.
Though crowds are expected to be smaller compared to last year, sales on Black Friday are forecast to edge up at least 8% to more than $21 billion this year, according to MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse. Retailers are pulling out all the stops to reel in shoppers, including incentives such as layaway plans, price matching and apps.
-- CNNMoney's Emily Jane Fox and Annalyn Kurtz contributed to this article.