WASHINGTON - For two hours, Steve Brown stood in line outside of the Best Buy in Gaithersburg, Md., with a single objective: to score the 46-inch Samsung flat-panel TV at a blockbuster $700 discount.
He was not alone. Roughly 300 people crowded outside Best Buy's doors as an icy wind whipped through the crowd - a common sight on the day after Thanksgiving, when stores stage massive sales to get shoppers revved up for the holidays. But this was nearly two weeks before Thanksgiving, and the frenzy had already begun.
"I'm not a crowd person," said Mr. Brown, of Reston, Va. "But the savings on the TVs were enough to drive me out here."
Once heralded as the symbolic kickoff to the holiday shopping season, Black Friday is sacred no more. Retailers this year began touting door-buster discounts weeks before anyone thought about roasting a turkey. And the deals will continue long after the leftovers are eaten, with online retailers and even infomercials touting events to prolong the hype.
Concern that shoppers will rein in their spending this season is driving many of these promotions, several industry experts said. The National Retail Federation forecast that retail sales in November and December would grow 4 percent - the smallest gain since 2002 and below the 10-year average of 4.8 percent. A survey by Discover Financial Services released this week showed that 55 percent of consumers said they would spend less on holiday shopping this year.
The less money shoppers have to spend, the more aggressive the competition becomes for their business.
"Retailers are getting a little anxious, and they're trying to encourage consumers to spend whatever disposable income they have with them instead of their competitors," said Bonnie Carlson, interim president of the Promotion Marketing Association, a trade group. "Tougher times require tougher measures."
Wal-Mart has led the way, slashing prices as early as October in such key categories as toys, home and apparel. Then on Nov. 2, it unveiled five more door-buster deals to mark the opening of its in-store Christmas shops. This week, it announced that hot items would be discounted on its Web site on Thanksgiving day - including a Garmin Global Positioning System cut back 30 percent, to $299 - and that additional secret specials would be available in stores tomorrow and Sunday.
Oh yeah, today's Black Friday scene is expected to be pretty busy, too.
"We know that a lot of people are impacted, certainly with economic pressures," Wal-Mart spokeswoman Melissa O'Brien said. "We're spreading it out also just for convenience."
Best Buy held exclusive shopping events for members of its loyalty program, Reward Zone, at about 70 stores on Nov. 11, nearly two weeks before Black Friday. In addition to the discounted television, the company touted a $600 laptop and printer package, and savings on a high-end digital camera and lens.
Even infomercials are jumping on the holiday bandwagon with Info-Mania Sunday two days after Thanksgiving. Barbara Tulipane, president of the Electronic Retailing Association, a trade group for direct retail sales, said the number of infomercials jumps substantially after Thanksgiving. She said they are targeted at viewers who may have gone through the Black Friday blitz and are relaxing at home in front of the TV.