The nation's retailers are ushering in the traditional start of the holiday shopping season with expanded hours and deep discounts on everything from toys to TVs to lure crowds of shoppers.
A number of stores, including Walmart and many Old Navy locations, opened on Thanksgiving, hoping to make the most of the extra hours. Toys R Us opened most of its stores at midnight Friday.
Online sellers also pushed to grab a piece of the action, pushing deals on Thursday and even earlier in the week.
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After suffering the worst sales decline in several decades last holiday season, the good news is that the retail industry is heading into the Christmas selling period armed with lean inventories and more practical goods on their shelves that reflect shoppers' new psyche.
Still, with unemployment at 10.2 percent and consumers still struggling with tight credit, many analysts expect total holiday sales to be about even from a year ago.
Optimism was rising in early fall as shoppers came to life, but stores have seen a sales slowdown since right after Halloween, putting merchants more on edge.
"There are going to be ebbs and flows," said Marshal Cohen, chief retail industry analyst at NPD Group Inc., a market research firm, noting financial challenges among shoppers.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, has lures like deeply discounted TVs like 42-inch plasma Emerson HDTVs for $448, and other electronics like $78 Magnavox Blu-ray disc players, for the early morning specials that start at 5 a.m.
Toys R Us, which threw open its doors just after midnight Friday, five hours earlier than a year ago, is hawking 250 early morning specials that offer discounts of up to 65 percent on such items as VTech Learning Laptops and Little Tikes Jump 'n Slide Bouncer.
Midprice department store operator Kohl's Corp., which is set to open at 4 a.m., is offering deep discounts on cashmere sweaters, dresses and select kitchen appliances.
The nation's largest electronics chain, Best Buy Co., will open its doors at 5 a.m. will have such deals as $999.99 Samsung 46-inch flat-panel TVs, a savings of $700; and Sony laptops for $479.97, a savings of $180.
With the early morning specials limited, crowd control is expected to be a big focus for merchants this year in the aftermath of the death of a Wal-Mart worker at a Long Island store during last year's Black Friday shopping madness.
Wal-Mart kept most of its stores open through the night to prevent such mad dashes.
Rival Target Corp., which is opening at 5 a.m. Friday, is spreading hot items throughout the store to make sure customers have space to shop, as it has done in the past.
The promotional blitz typical for the traditional start of the holiday shopping season has high stakes for retailers who've suffered through a year of sales declines. It's also important for the broader economy, which could also use a kickstart from consumer spending.
Black Friday gets its name because traditionally was the day when huge crowds would push stores into "the black," or profitability. But the weekend doesn't provide a forecast for the rest of the season, which accounts for as much as 40 percent of annual sales and profits for many stores.
Still, retailers closely study buying patterns for the Thanksgiving weekend to gauge shoppers' mindset _ what kinds of items they're buying, what deals are luring them.
Stores need to perform well for the traditional start because chances are slim they'll be able to make up for lost sales for the rest of the season.
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