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Black Friday is notorious for its long lines, giant crowds and frenzied shoppers.

But this year, it seemed the pressure had eased a bit in Sonoma County, perhaps released Thanksgiving evening when many stores opened a day early.

For nearly a decade, the Friday after Thanksgiving was the official start of the Christmas shopping season. It became known as Black Friday to mark when retailers turned a profit, or moved out of the red and into the black.

But a few years ago, store chains began opening on Thanksgiving in an effort to grow profits.

Santa Rosa Plaza opened at 8 p.m. Thursday, four hours earlier than last year. Target threw open its doors at 8 p.m. too, an hour earlier than last year. Coddingtown Mall also welcomed shoppers Thursday night, as did large retailers including Old Navy, Toys R Us and Best Buy.

Some have protested stores opening on Thanksgiving, saying it is unfair to workers.

The Walmart Workers Support Group and Occupy Santa Rosa held a protest late Friday morning outside the Rohnert Park Walmart. The goal, they said, was to draw attention to the mistreatment of workers at large retail chains.

At 1 p.m., about 15 protesters stood outside, waving signs.

"We're here because, of all the large companies, Walmart is the worst to its workers," said Dana Bellweather. She said they were holding the event on Black Friday because it was when the most people would see their signs.

Several Walmart employees interviewed, who would not give their names, said Thursday night had been the busiest time so far. Friday morning started out more quietly, they said.

"It's been like hell," acknowledged one employee, but another said working Thursday night hadn't been too bad, in part because Walmart brought in food for the staff.

A few miles north on Santa Rosa Avenue, Target also provided catering for its holiday workers.

"We try do do things to make it right" for them, said John Simpson, a manager at Target.

Natalie Peterson, who works in customer service there, said she didn't mind working Thursday night or coming back on Friday. "It was fun and exciting," she said, adding that she was able to have her usual Thanksgiving dinner before work.

Simpson said that his store experienced a big rush Thursday night. A long line of shoppers had formed by 9 p.m., and there was a race for marked-down, 50-inch TVs.

But there were no disturbances, he said. "The guests were in a shopping mood."

Until store sales numbers are available Saturday, it's unclear whether this year's early openings brought retailers the added revenue they seek or simply caused shoppers to spread out their purchases.

Friday afternoon, store owners and managers said sales seemed to match last year's.

Kim Hall, a spokeswoman for Santa Rosa Plaza, said there was less of a rush early Friday morning than there had been in years past, perhaps because of the mall's Thursday night opening. She expected crowds to pick up throughout the day.

Some stores sought to lure shoppers in with store-wide discounts of 40 percent. Others featured doorbuster sales, drastically marking down specific items.

"Whatever can stand out," Hall said.

Fahim Adel, who owns Bayside Watch in Santa Rosa Plaza, was offering 50 percent discounts on some fashion watches, among other deals.

He said business had been good, especially Thursday night. Friday hadn't been as busy, but overall sales seemed on-pace with last year.

Evin Mojica and his friend were searching for such sales late Friday morning.

Having just worked at Old Navy the night before, he said he wasn't working off a shopping list. "I'm out looking for deals."

A group of four women were also seeking sales, letting their coupons dictate where they went.

Donna Barbour, daughter Tracy Barbour and granddaughter Savannah Miller, along with their friend Vicki Dougherty, said they'd hit up Coddingtown Mall the night before at 8 p.m.

The crowds there weren't too bad, and they found lots of savings, Dougherty said.

"It's horrible for the workers," she added. "But I enjoy being out at 9 (on Thursday night). It's nice not waiting until midnight or getting up at 5 a.m. to wait in the cold."

But for some, Thanksgiving Day shopping remained off limits.

Sue and Tom Cleary were at Santa Rosa Plaza late Friday afternoon with their five children, ages 16 to 23. Normally, just the women in the family shopped on Black Friday, Tom Cleary said. But this year, they decided they wanted to stay together as a family.

When asked if they'd go shopping on Thanksgiving, he had a quick reply: "No, it's wrong."

"It's a family day," added his son Jake.

(This report includes information from the Associated Press. You can reach Staff Writer Jamie Hansen at 521-5205 or jamie.hansen@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter at @JamieHansen)