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Gimmicks, Long Hours Greet ‘Black Friday’ Shoppers

Above: Shoppers look for bargains at Toys 'R' Us on Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 2010, in New York City. The stores, which opened nationwide at 10PM, will remain open for 24 hours for Black Friday.

After weeks of "Black Friday" sales pitches, the real thing is finally here.

Retailers are ushering in the traditional kickoff of the U.S. holiday shopping season on Friday with expanded hours, deep discounts and online deals to draw bargain-hungry shoppers.

In a bid to grab shoppers earlier, a number of stores including Old Navy, Toys R Us and Sears opened on Thanksgiving Day. Toys R Us was counting on getting an extra boost by opening 24 hours straight, starting at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving.

The crescendo follows a weeks-long push to woo shoppers. Many stores had trotted out the "Black Friday" label on sales as far back as October.

Retailers are also hoping to capture others' dollars online. Wal-Mart and Target were among a gaggle of retailers that dramatically stepped up deals on their websites Thursday, hoping to lure online shoppers stuffed with turkey.

The fierce battle for shoppers' wallets promises savings for those willing and able to buy amid an economy that's still worrying many.

The good news is that retailers are heading into the season with some momentum after a solid start to November. Shoppers who can afford it are buying more nonessentials, like jewelry and luxury goods. That's helping to lift their spirits about the holiday season, which is expected to generate revenue gains modestly higher than a year ago.

"It's a dogfight between retail companies," said Chris Donnelly, a senior executive in consulting group Accenture's retail practice. "This year is the first time that there's a little more money in the marketplace so they're being more aggressive about getting the last dollar. At the end of the day, they're going to outweigh people who are pulling back."

There may be as many as 138 million shoppers in lines and stores today, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation. Alison Paul with the accounting firm Deloitte says it looks like holiday spending will be up about 2 percent this year — not great, but a big improvement over recent years when Paul says there was no where to go but up.

"It's kind of like, you can't fall off the floor. But that's good news for retailers because what it signals is the end of the downturn and the end of this sort of puritanical approach to the holidays," Paul says.

Paul says retailers who have taken full advantage of social networking are going to do better this year.

Best Buy for the first time has holiday marketing on Facebook, Twitter and two smart phone applicaions. Best Buy Vice President Shari Ballard says this could be the best Black Friday in years.

"We're extraordinarily excited about it. We believe that there is a lot of pent up consumer demand," Ballard says.

But with nearly 15 million are unemployed and concerns about job security still clouding consumer confidence, some retailers are pushing deals on basics as well as offering discounts on more deluxe items, from bigger flat-panel TVS to more elaborate play sets.

Kohl's, which planned to open at 3 a.m. Friday, one hour earlier than a year ago, is promoting diamond bracelets and diamonds heart pendants for $99 each, down from $500 or $575. The store is also offering 50 percent off all toys.

Thanksgiving weekend is huge for retailers. In recent years, Black Friday has been the busiest shopping day of the year, according to data from research firm ShopperTrak. But it doesn't necessarily provide a complete forecast of holiday sales. In fact, shoppers seem to be procrastinating more every year, so the fate of the holiday season is increasingly down to the last few days.

Retailers do study buying patterns for the weekend to discern shoppers' mindset. This year, that means taking the measure on their willingness to spend just a little bit more.

Last year, the Thanksgiving shopping weekend accounted for 12.3 percent of overall holiday revenue, according to ShopperTrak. Black Friday made up about half of that.

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