Jon Vincent expects more visitors to his blackfriday.info Web site this Thursday and Friday than he had all of last November.
The Boston-area resident suspects that mostly has to do with shoppers hungering for bargains in a bleak economy and partly to do with people becoming more comfortable with searching and shopping online.
"Traffic has doubled since last year," said Vincent, 28, who reserved the blackfriday.info domain name in 2004 after trying to help his parents shop online. He also created the Web coupon site keepcash.com. He expects 5 million unique visitors to his site later this week, up from nearly 2 million for the comparable period a year ago. He anticipates 8 million for the entire month, up from 4 million last November.
Vincent and other Black Friday Web sites and blogs have had a rapid evolution. When they sprang up a few years ago, many of the major retailers saw them as guerrilla operatives posting leaked versions of their circulars for the sales that officially kick off the shopping season in the wee hours the morning after Thanksgiving. But many retailers now play along, even feeding the sites their ads ahead of time, figuring the earlier the shoppers can see what they have to offer, the better.
"Retailers [are] saying 'Can you post our ad?' and, in 2004, we'd have never gotten that," Vincent said.
Mike Riddle couldn't believe the Web site domain black-friday.net was available when he scooped it up three years ago.
"I was surprised no one took it," said Riddle, 26. "It cost seven bucks at godaddy.com."
On his site, which he calls a "hobby," he expects to make about $5,000 this month from Google ads. The site has also more than doubled in traffic from a year ago.
"It's a combination of everything. This is a huge year for people looking for deals. The economy is down. Retailers are moving to promote more and more online," said Riddle, a software engineer in Nashua, N.H.
He launched the site after a few frustrating shopping experiences.
"It was a pain in the neck. By the time you get the ads, you're either not home, at your family's or you get home late that night," he said. "I noticed some of the other sites and I thought I could do a better job."
Some chains don't want their Black Friday prices getting out there early. The Black Friday sites seem to revel in the sparring with the retailers - to a point - even posting the "cease and desist" warning letters from the stores' legal counsel like a badge of courage.
The highest-profile pushback comes from Wal-Mart, whose lawyer typically sends pre-emptive letters to deter the independent sites before the leaves turn color. The nation's largest retailer, one of the few expecting a decent shopping season, did release its Black Friday circular to the ad sites last Friday.
"Traffic and overall activity to the site is up pretty significantly compared to last year. For the month of November, we're up around 40 percent compared to this time last year. Activity on the message boards is also up over last year. I think with the economy down, people are looking to get the best deals possible, regardless if they are spending less, the same or even more than last year," Brad Olson, 29, founder of gottadeal.com, wrote in an e-mail.
"As for store pushback, so far it's been less than last year. We had pre-emptive legal threats from Wal-Mart, KB Toys and Big Lots, but that's been it and I don't believe we've had to take an ad down that's already been posted, so hopefully most stores are realizing that with the economic situation the way it is, that any kind of free promotion for their sales won't hurt."
Ace Hardware has the distinction of having its Black Friday ad posted the earliest the past three years. This year it was Aug. 8 - the turkeys were still running free. The Illinois-based chain, which didn't provide the ads to the sites, isn't unhappy for the attention or eager consumers, but is concerned that the sites post early versions of their Black Friday ad before the products and prices are final.
"We've really only been dealing with the Black Friday sites the past two or three years," Ace spokesman Christopher Boniface said. "We don't want to be providing our competitors an early peek into our offerings, but on the whole, [the sites] generate some excitement about the sales in general."
"This year was the earliest it's ever been," he said, describing the difficulties of keeping the cat in the bag. "We have 4,600 stores across the country that we communicate with about what we're going to do. It's somewhat out of our control."
BLACK FRIDAY SITES