Although it's still called Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year is starting earlier than ever on Thanksgiving Day -- and might never start on Friday again.
"This is the new normal," said LaDonna Shamlou, general manager of Tanger Outlet Centers in greater Bluffton. Tanger shops will open at 10 p.m. today for Moonlight Madness and remain open through 9 p.m. Friday.
Black Friday is no longer the beginning of the Christmas shopping season as retailers -- desperate to compete with each other and with growing online sales -- roll out deep discounts earlier in November.
"Consumers (still) look at these sales, like Black Friday, in great anticipation because it's the only time of the year when retailers are so aggressive they actually tell the shopper, 'Not only is this a good deal, but we only have 13 of these, or 25 of these, or 11 of these per store -- or we only have 1,000 of these to sell overall,' " said Britt Beemer, retail analyst at America's Research Group in Charleston.
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Walmart is leading the pack, along with Sears, by opening its Black Friday deals at 8 p.m. today, two hours earlier than last year. It's advertising a $179 deal on a 15.6-inch Compaq Presario notebook computer.
Best Buy, which will hold off opening until midnight, a couple of weeks ago released "preview" ads of some of its Black Friday deals, which include a Samsung laptop bundle that includes a carrying case, wireless mouse, and security software for $349.95.
Target, which opened at midnight last year, is pushing the opening up to 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving this year. Kmart is opening at 6 a.m. today and 5 a.m. on Black Friday.
Belk stores are opening at midnight and giving gift cards worth between $5 and $1,000 to the first 250 shoppers 18 and older. Hilton Head Island store manager Scott Sutton says every store will give out at least one $1,000 gift card.
Consumers are expected to turn out. Some retail forecasters such as Shop.org predict 2012 holiday sales to increase by as much as 12 percent over last year's, to $96 billion. Others, such as the National Retail Federation, predict a more moderate holiday sales increase of 4.1 percent.
Because of last year's success with opening at 10 p.m., Shamlou says all but one or two of the 90 stores at Tanger Outlets are participating in the early openings this year.
"I think we started the event five or so years ago, where we opened at midnight. Moving it to 10 p.m. ... seemed to be a little more successful. Some people who like to come at 10 p.m. may not come at midnight," she said.
Not all local stores are opening early today or Friday, especially many locally owned shops in downtown Beaufort. However, these stores will be participating in "Small Business Saturday" events intended to lure shoppers with discounts and giveaways.
LaNelle Fabian, executive director of Main Street Beaufort, said shopping with local merchants has its own rewards.
"It gives you that quaint, not-in-a-rush feeling," she said.
Roddie Burris of The (Columbia) State and Casey Conley of the The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette contributed.