Southern California shoppers were offered a new twist Thursday to their annual Thanksgiving routine: the chance to do some post-dinner bargain hunting.
Eager to get a jump on pushing low-priced inventory out the door, many big chains moved the opening bell for Black Friday sales to midnight -- or even earlier.
Toys R Us opened at 9 p.m., while Wal-Mart trotted out new bargains at 10. Macy's, Kohl's, Target and other chains were set to open at midnight.
But not all went smoothly. Ten minutes after the Wal-Mart in Porter Ranch opened, a female customer used pepper spray on other shoppers at the Black Friday sale, injuring at least seven people and forcing employees to evacuate a portion of the store, police said.
"This was customer-versus-customer 'shopping rage,' " said Los Angeles Police Lt. Abel Parga. He said one shopper was taken to a hospital after complaining of difficulty breathing.
Police officers, he said, were seeking a female suspect following the attack. Fire officials said they were treating about 20 people suffering minor injuries at the store, which is located on Rinaldi Street near Corbin Avenue.
Meanwhile, in Torrance, shoppers poured into a Toys R Us store, 50 at a time, when the doors opened Thursday night. Manager Ryan Smith said he figures there were 2,000 people on hand waiting to browse through the sprawling store. Within minutes, shopping carts began to fill up with Transformer action figures, Barbie dolls and video games.
South Bay-area resident Natalie Vyce, 36, was fourth in line with her son Jordan, 15, and they came prepared. "We have it all mapped out. You go in for what you need and you get out. You don't browse." She said she'll be out all night. Her next stop was Kohl's, and she planned to be back at Toys R Us at 5 a.m. when new items go on sale.
"The stores are all opening so early now that it's throwing off my strategy," she said, laughing.
Altering opening hours nationwide for discount shopping has opened up a social divide between consumers eager to get an earlier -- and less bleary-eyed -- start to swiping their credit cards, and those who see the new hours as an unacceptable intrusion on the holiday, especially for store employees.
More than 200,000 people signed a petition in the days leading up to Thanksgiving asking Target to stay closed until Friday morning to allow workers to spend more time with their families. Target responded that it was offering earlier hours at the request of its customers.
Many shoppers were more than willing to spend Turkey Day separated from loved ones. At Best Buy electronic stores throughout Southern California, people waited for hours -- and some for days -- in lines that stretched down streets and around blocks before the midnight opening.
At the Best Buy on Pacific Coast Highway in Torrance, student Gisela Avila, 24, of Harbor City and her boyfriend got in line Wednesday afternoon in hopes of getting one of a few Sharp 42-inch high-definition televisions priced at $199. Normally, she said, they go for $499.
It was her first Black Friday shopping experience, and she welcomed the new midnight hours -- mainly because she has to be at work herself at 8 a.m. Friday, selling shoes at Macy's. "I want a TV," she said Thursday evening with four hours to go before the store opened. "I have to wait for Black Friday because I can't afford one any other day."
At the store in West Hollywood, first-time Black Friday shopper David Nerio, 25, said he had taken turns in line waiting with his wife since Tuesday. They too were eager to snag a similar television at a price they could afford, he said Thursday afternoon.
"It's a good thing that we don't have to sleep here again tonight -- it was pretty cold," he said.
A handful of chains also had daytime hours Thursday, and online merchants were hawking deals day and night. Retailers such as Sport Chalet and Saks Fifth Avenue were offering special Thanksgiving Day deals online.
And during the day, shoppers kept busy at stores such as Kmart, Old Navy and Gap. The Grove in Los Angeles was only slightly less crowded than usual.
Darren Matsuura, 43, and his wife, Holly, 36, emerged from a Gap store there, laden with two large bags stuffed with $400 worth of jeans and pajamas for their children.
They said they enjoyed the relative calmness of Thanksgiving bargain hunting -- especially compared with the pandemonium they associated with the next day.
"Black Friday scares us," Holly Matsuura said. "We tried it once, and we won't be trying it again."
Times staff writer Jack Leonard contributed to this report.