Never mind early-bird specials. Night-owl deals may now define Black Friday.

Retailers, jockeying for sales amid forecasts of tepid growth, opened their doors as early as 9 p.m. Thursday. And consumers, despite pessimism about the economy, came out in droves.

If the signs of an enthusiastic response are confirmed, retailers will probably continue their invasion of Thanksgiving, opening stores as some families are still polishing off their turkey dinners, analysts and company officials said.

Parking lots at Toys R Us stores were packed before doors opened Thursday evening. Lines snaked around Target and Best Buy locations by the afternoon, with some shoppers camping out on sidewalks since Wednesday.

Throughout the week, some store workers and families launched campaigns calling on retailers to leave Thanksgiving alone, but consumers may have shown that no time is a bad time to shop.

Javier Marin was first in line at the Best Buy near Tysons Corner. He had waited since 4 p.m. Wednesday so that he could buy two TVs — a 42-inch and a 55-inch — and a stereo system.

He and four friends slept in a tent outside the store Wednesday night. On Thursday morning, his wife brought him scrambled eggs for breakfast. His Thanksgiving dinner was a Three Musketeers bar.

“I saw a good deal and didn’t want to pass it up,” said Marin, 47, of Falls Church. “I’m missing Thanksgiving with my family, but it’s just one year. I can be forgiven for that.”

Jennifer Yoo, 21, had her Thanksgiving feast — complete with ham, turkey, mashed potatoes and corn bread — delivered curbside by her brother to the Best Buy in Germantown. And with her mother as company in line, her quest for the television was a family affair.

“I always told myself I would never be one of the crazy people outside Best Buy, but I proved myself wrong this year,” said Yoo, a Gaithersburg resident who had been in line since 7 p.m. Wednesday.

Knowing that there are people willing to skip turkey and stuffing for a flat-screen TV or an Xbox video game console appears to be encouraging earlier openings each year. Last year, Toys R Us became one of the first big-box chains to launch its Black Friday specials at 10 p.m. Thursday. This year, Wal-Mart matched the move.

So Toys R Us opened its doors even earlier, at 9 p.m.

“This is just the beginning,” said Ken Homa, professor of marketing at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. “Next year, we’re likely to see everybody doing this. . . . The guys with the first opportunity to get to somebody’s pocketbook are likely to take share away from their competitors.”

Holiday sales can account for upward of 40 percent of retailers’ annual total and represented nearly 20 percent of the retail industry’s total intake last year, according to the National Retail Federation, a trade group.

Merchants entered this holiday season with the European debt crisis, weak U.S. economic growth and failed “supercommittee” talks threatening to sour consumers on spending. Some surveys show that a large number of households believe it is a bad time to spend.

Yet shoppers have a way of defying expectations.

“Consumers never cease to surprise me with how they can spend when it looks like they don’t have the ability to,” said Maggie Taylor, vice president and senior credit officer at Moody’s Investors Service.

Kevin Hourican, senior vice president and regional director of stores for Macy’s, said he was convinced consumers would flock to the department store for an earlier opening after witnessing the crowds at Tysons Corner last year.

Macy’s had tested the late-night opening at a handful of stores last year. Based on the success at those locations and for other retailers, the company was ready to kick off a midnight opening across the country.

“It was a pretty easy decision,” Hourican said. “We’re getting a customer that wasn’t coming in at 4 a.m. but one that never went to bed.”

Tighter budgets may have lured many consumers to late-night sales for deep discounts on items they otherwise could not afford.

“Sometimes we have to make sacrifices with the economy being what it is,” Joel Castillo, 19, said while standing in line at Best Buy in Germantown for a $200 42-inch flat-screen television. “Once I’m at home watching my TV, it will be worth it.”

Seasoned Black Friday shoppers in some cases praised retailers for forgoing the standard openings in the wee hours of Friday morning.

“It was actually smoother than in years past,” Jill Winner, 35, said as she and her niece Lindsey Delouney, 15, rolled out of the Wal-Mart in Germantown just after 10:30 p.m. Thursday. “There was actually more security. People were more friendly I think because they weren’t waiting up all night.”

Not every night-owl opening ran as smoothly. A women at a Wal-Mart in California’s San Fernando Valley allegedly spewed pepper spray on a crowd of shoppers to get an Xbox on Thursday night, according to police. About 20 people suffered minor injuries.

To cut down on such incidents, many retailers handed shoppers tickets to reserve limited-quantity merchandise. But there was still trouble.

“People who had been in line let their family just come out of nowhere and jump in, and the guards did nothing,” said Mike Masho, who had been camped out at the Best Buy in Woodbridge since 9 a.m. Thursday for the 42-inch flat-screen TV. By the time a store worker got to the 25-year-old, one of the first 50 people in line, tickets for his coveted television were gone.

“After all the time I spent out here,” he said. “It’s just wrong.”

But all hope was not lost. Masho’s cousin, hedging his bets, was camped out at a nearby Target and was the second person in line.

Shoppers looking to avoid hassles and big crowds found success Friday morning in downtown Bethesda, where parking spaces were plentiful, lines were short or nonexistent, and the vibe was so calm that a woman sat reading a book on a bench outside the Lululemon yoga store.

Inside the Apple Store, shoppers were able to quickly buy MacBook Airs, iPads and iPods at a special table reserved for fast purchases. Assessing the chaos, or lack thereof, one woman was heard strolling into the store and saying, “Oh, this isn’t bad at all.”

Dolly Antayhua, 26, of Chevy Chase scored herself a new Apple laptop — after failing to procure one the previous night at Best Buy, where she was one of thousands of shoppers who lined up outside the retailer for earlier-than-early sales.

Antayhua was grateful to find relative serenity in Bethesda. And she was still able to snag a good deal, she said. Apple had knocked off $101 for laptops, among other discounts.

“This was easy,” she said.

Retailers did their best to part consumers from their cash. Old Navy, Sears and J.C. Penney are just a few of the stores that were offering free merchandise, food or entertainment at the door.

Best Buy treated bargain hunters at 120 of its stores to an outdoor screening of the final Harry Potter movie. The Westfield Wheaton mall hired a DJ and passed out fuel food: candy canes, Nutri-Grain bars and bottles of 5-Hour Energy.

The mall opened at midnight for Black Friday for the first time ever — one of 15 Westfield properties across the country, including the nearby Montgomery mall, to do so.

Sidney Woods, marketing director at Westfield Wheaton, said the decision was made after some early-rising retailers last year reported a double-digit sales increase. In a sluggish economic climate, every transaction is paramount.

Not everyone shopping on Black Friday was on the hunt for a deal, however. Architect Gavin Daniels slept in Friday morning while his wife hit the big-box stores. His turn to shop came that afternoon.

Daniels was one of the first customers at the new Black Room at the Georgetown boutique Lost Boys. The members-only shop launched Friday as an antidote to the Black Friday bonanza, owner Kelly Muccio said.

“Everyone’s going to get these deals, but what we’re doing is the exact opposite,” she said. “Less is more. . . . All you need is perfection.”

Perfection doesn’t come cheap. Appointments, which include personal styling and consultation as well as a cocktail or two, run between $600 to $1,000 and feature apparel not typically available in the store.

“How am I supposed to wrap this scarf?” Daniels asked Muccio as he modeled potential outfits for the holiday party for the firm he founded, Wingate Hughes.

Muccio instructed him on the art of the carefully draped (never knotted) scarf before bringing out a pair of winning brown wingtips.

“Do you love the shoes?” Muccio asked.

“I’m going to wear them home, probably,” Daniels responded, sipping his second cocktail.

Staff writers Ylan Q. Mui, Michael S. Rosenwald, Abha Bhattarai and Olga Khazan contributed to this report.