In search of deals on their first helping of holiday gifts, hundreds of Sonoma County shoppers left the dinner table Thursday night to hit local stores.

They were the first wave of the projected 147 million people expected to crowd retailers nationwide through the weekend.

Many decided to take advantage of even earlier opening hours this Thanksgiving, allowing them to beat the morning rush today when stores open for Black Friday sales.

"It actually makes it more convenient just because I'm in earlier and out earlier," said Monte Rio resident Heather Gatica, 31, who was among dozens of shoppers lined up outside the Target in Santa Rosa Marketplace before the store opened at 9 p.m.

Across the city, waiting shoppers equipped themselves with chairs, blankets, tents and books. They said the promise of deep discounts on electronics, appliances and gifts for loved ones drove them queue up in the cold, only moments removed from the warmth of a holiday meal.

"Actually it's good for you. It's good to run around after you're done eating," said Seth Stenchever, 37, of Santa Rosa, who was waiting with at least 200 other Thanksgiving shoppers outside Sears in the downtown Santa Rosa Plaza.

Many had an itinerary that included multiple stops. Sears, for example, was just Stenchever's first store of the night. Down the road he planned to hit the outlet shops in Petaluma and several other chain stores opening at midnight.

On his list: holiday gifts with deals that would save his family money.

"It definitely helps," he said.

Black Friday earned its nickname because many stores are said to turn their first profit of the year, or go "into the black," on the day after Thanksgiving.

But Thursday is now the new Friday for many retailers, who have moved up their sales earlier and earlier each year, from pre-dawn starts on Friday into Thanksgiving Day proper.

Industry analysts say the trend is driven by competition among chain stores and the push to catch up with online sales, which can operate around the clock. Surveys have also shown some customers prefer the expanded late-night hours versus the early-bird sales that have been standard for years.

At the Santa Rosa Toys R Us, which opened up at 8 p.m., one hour earlier than last year, some customers pined for past years, when large chain stores kicked off their sales at dawn on Friday.

Others said the new trend offering Thanksgiving night hours was a better fit with their schedules.

"I wouldn't get up in the middle of the night to do this," Dan Weiss, 57, said as he made his way to the back of a 250-person line just before the store opened.

Inside minutes later, the aisles quickly filled with customers of different stripes. Some perused the shelves and grabbed items willy nilly, while others made a beeline for the only thing on their list.

Mason and Brittany Wagner were treating themselves to a pair of new gaming consoles, the Nintendo Wii U. The young Santa Rosa couple said it was their first time shopping on Thanksgiving night.

"You beat the crowds," Brittany Wagner, 23, said. "It seemed like a fun little adventure."

Retailers can take in an estimated 25 to 40 percent of their annual sales in the last two months of the year. Sales this holiday shopping season are forecast to rise 4.1 percent to $586 billion, according to the National Retail Federation. That is a smaller projected increase than last year's 5.6 percent sales jump.

Many shoppers said their purchases Thursday were not enabled by any larger income or greater confidence in an economic turnaround. Instead, they said, the discounts offered through holiday sales offered a chance to buy items they've long done without.

Estika Cugini, 39, was waiting Thursday to buy a dishwasher at Sears.

"Not very exciting," he said. "Four years ago, there's no way I'd be here. But money is tight right now."

Still, research suggests the action Thursday night and the shopping frenzy projected to extend through the weekend might be limited to a minority of diehard deal-searchers. A new poll by Consumer Reports, the product-testing nonprofit, shows that more than two thirds of Americans will not be hitting the stores this weekend.

Thanksgiving night shoppers conceded they had left many family members behind.

Brandon Ingerson, 27, who was first in line at Target in Santa Rosa, said his shopping plans drew what was likely a frown from his mother, who is 650 miles away in Oregon.

"She thinks that by having the stores open at 9 p.m. that people are not going to be spending time with family," he said. In his case, with most of his relatives out of state "it gave me something to do."

The late-night shopping for Donna Vanguilder, meanwhile, seemed to be getting the Santa Rosa resident out of another Thanksgiving pastime: dishes. There were a lot.

"They probably won't be done when I get home," she said.