Retailers are getting a jump on Black Friday this year in hopes of ringing up more sales during the traditional holiday-shopping kickoff.
With prices already cut to the bone to attract cash-strapped customers, retailers are trying other ways to set themselves apart this year.
They're pushing Black Friday ads, discounts and opening times earlier, hoping to grab a share of what is expected to be the biggest increase in holiday sales since 2006.
"Everyone's playing a little game of chicken with each other -- opening earlier, trying to get a share of that wallet," said Chris Hauca, vice president of cross channel selling for Chicago-based Acquity Group, a firm that helps major retailers handle their e-commerce sites.
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Plenty of shoppers will still camp outside stores in the dark after Thanksgiving dinner hoping to be the first to nab a $3 toaster or a $49 camcorder.
Black Friday is expected to be the No. 1 day for sales and foot traffic this year, according to ShopperTrak, a Chicago-based firm that measures sales and traffic at retailers.
About 134 million people are expected to hit the stores on Black Friday, Saturday and Sunday -- up 4.7% over last year, according to the National Retail Federation.
The day comes amid optimistic -- yet cautious -- hopes for the holiday sales season. The retail federation is predicting a 2.3% increase in sales.
Although the day will be frenzied, the sales situation likely will be tempered in Fresno County, where unemployment lingers at 15.7%.
"It's still going to be flat" in the Valley, said Jeff Green, a Phoenix-based retail consultant. "For the Fresno market, Black Friday this year will be similar to last year. It could be slightly up or down, but only slightly."
Shoppers nationwide are watching their budgets. The number of people expected to use credit cards for their gift purchases is the lowest since 2002, while debit card usage will be up 20%, according to a retail federation consumer survey.
With shoppers spending a limited amount, retailers have to work harder to get a share of that money, said Michael Niemira, chief economist and director of research at the International Council of Shopping Centers.
That's where the early opening times, early ads and pre-Black Friday sales come in.
"It's part of a broader positioning by the industry to be more aggressive this year," he said.
"I think it's a good strategy and one that will pay off."
Sears will open on Thanksgiving Day for the first time, from 7 a.m. to noon. Many retailers will open earlier than ever, like Toys "R" Us, which will open at 10 p.m. and stay open throughout the night.
The Fashion Fair Macy's and JCPenney will open at midnight -- the first time for those stores, but the second midnight opening for the mall.
"They saw a clear need to be open, because shoppers were here and waiting for them" last year, said Fashion Fair mall marketing manager Kelly Tallant.
"They're really just meeting the consumer demand."
Many chains also are offering discounts before Black Friday, like Sears, which began offering "Black Friday Now" deals in October and Old Navy, which had a "Merry Monday" sale.
Retailers and consumers also are increasingly relying on the Internet for discounts before and after Black Friday.
More retailers will be participating in Cyber Monday discounts -- on this coming Monday -- this year, too.
And some are offering online deals in the days leading up to Friday, and on Thanksgiving Day.
Many chains will offer doorbuster-style deals online at midnight and again in the early-morning hours, Hauca said.
The deals are often offered in Central or Eastern time, so Californians don't have to stay up as late if they read the fine print, he said.
Web pages that instruct customers to wait up to 15 minutes if the site is overloaded with shoppers may be more common this year, he said. Some sites display the warning as they limit traffic to avoid crashing.
The push to be the first to offer a discount could run the risk of deflating the excitement or number of people at physical stores Friday if consumers know they can get deals earlier, Hauca said.
But, he said, plenty of diehards still like the experience of shopping on Black Friday.
"Just shopping online, you don't necessarily have that community aspect, a little bit of the hunt, the frenzy," Hauca said. "... There are people that really get into that and enjoy it."
The people who do hit the malls can plan their strategies early this year.
"The days of keeping Black Friday ads secret until the day before seem to have left us," said Geanie Silva, the events and marketing director for Sierra Vista Mall in Clovis.
In the past, ads were leaked and compiled on a websites like blackfriday.info/sales and blackfridayads.com, she said.
Now, many retailers are releasing them ahead of time themselves, Silva said. They include Walmart, which invites customers to enter their ZIP code online to see their local ad and a map of where the deals are located in the store.
Silva said technology also is replacing the tradition of reading ads on Thanksgiving Day, with retailers sending their Black Friday specials via e-mail, Facebook and Twitter before Thanksgiving.