Early sales may have deflated some enthusiasm for the traditional post-Thanksgiving bargains this year, weakening shoppers' tolerance for long lines, clogged parking lots and early-morning crowds.
Concerns about a sputtering economy drove several major retailers to offer steep discounts earlier than ever this year. Now they're bracing to see if shoppers will come out in full force tomorrow after experiencing weeks of deals that in years past were exclusively reserved for Black Friday.
"I don't expect to see the crazy knock-the-door-down crowds as usual," said Marshall Cohen, chief economist of the NPD Group, a consumer research firm. "Where you had 500 people at 5 a.m. last year, this year you'll see 200."
Not everyone agrees. And it's not as if retailers expect stores to be empty tomorrow. Some analysts believe shoppers will come out and spend big tomorrow because they know merchants already are skittish about the season and have cut prices.
There has been some dispute about whether the day after Thanksgiving is the busiest shopping day of the year. While several economists point to the Saturday before Christmas as the strongest day in terms of sales, ShopperTrak RCT Corp. said Black Friday reclaimed the top spot the past two years.
But merchants didn't approach this year like any before.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. held its first holiday door-buster sale Nov. 2 - its earliest point ever - and it said the merchandise sold out in two hours.
Toys "R" Us, Kohl's department store, Boscov's and J.C. Penney are also among the stores that have been offering Black Friday-like discounts for weeks now.
By cutting prices so early this year, merchants may have taken some of the edge off Black Friday, which is nicknamed as such because it was long responsible for putting merchants' ledgers in the black.
Some shoppers have already snared their deals, according to some analysts, and have less incentive to shop tomorrow.
"I don't think it will be a great Black Friday," said Jay McIntosh, director of consumer products for Ernst & Young LLP. "The ones who do come out will be buying items that are heavily marked down. But I don't expect that as many people will come out."
Some retail experts said Black Friday keeps facing more competition from other days in the holiday season. Many people are waiting later in the year to shop in hopes of getting even better bargains. Online sites offer sales Thanksgiving Day. And stores such as CompUSA, which first opened from 9 p.m. to midnight last Thanksgiving, will do so again tonight.
Shopping trackers such as Wendy Liebmann, president of WSL Strategic Retail in New York, say more consumers use the day after Thanksgiving to window shop instead of buying gifts. The problems with the economy may only make it worse this year.
"Black Friday has become that day that is more fun than anything else," Liebmann said. "It's a day that people say, `Let's go out and see what the deals are and then we'll snooze for two weeks and wait for prices to be slashed even more.'"
Economists expect shoppers to spend less this year on holiday gifts since they're paying more for things like gasoline and food.
And with no "must have" new item - like the years of the Wii video game system or Tickle me Elmo doll - retailers don't have a trendy product that's exciting shoppers and drawing them into their stores.
A Consumer Reports holiday poll released this week found that 24 percent of consumers plan to shop tomorrow - up 4 percentage points from 2006. But the national poll of 1,009 people also found that fewer consumers expect to wait in line for early-bird sales this year - 12 percent compared with 14 percent last year.
However, Britt Beemer, of America's Research Group, said he expects consumers to come out in larger numbers tomorrow because they anticipate better bargains this year due to the slow economy.
"What Wal-Mart is doing for their deals now is incredible, but what they're going to do on Black Friday will be even better," Beemer said. "They haven't gone for the big stuff yet."
Retailers said they still see Black Friday as a shopping draw despite this year's early discounts.
J.C. Penney has already had several door-buster days and slashed prices on many items. But the retailer said it would offer even more discounts tomorrow. The company has offered early discounts before, but analysts said the deals are even steeper this year.
"We really blow it up for that day," said Kate Parkhouse, a J.C. Penney spokeswoman. "It's still a great time for sales."
Wal-Mart has similar plans, promoting the next few days as "Black Friday weekend." The world's largest retailer announced in early October that it was already cutting prices on thousands of items, including toys. Wal-Mart said it has lowered prices on 20 percent more items this year than it did in 2006.
"We know our customers are crunched from a budget perspective because of energy prices," Wal-Mart spokesman Steven Restivo said.