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Black Friday becomes Black Thursday as retailers expand holiday pie

Black Friday starts at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving day, and retailers expect to ring up as much as 20 percent of their holiday sales over the Thanksgiving weekend. CNBC's Courtney Reagan reports.

Attention Black Friday shoppers: The rules of the game have changed this year. You’ll need to shop earlier and more often to bag those amazing bargains.

At Kmart, Sears, Toys R Us and Walmart, Black Friday starts at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving. Target opens its doors at 9 p.m.

“Is it now Black Thursday?” asked Michael Brim, founder of BFAds.net, one of many websites dedicated to tracking holiday-season deals. “It’s weird. Are people going to forgo Thanksgiving meals?”

Maybe not, but retailers certainly think dedicated shoppers will have no problem heading to the big-box stores Thursday night.

“We heard from our guests that they look forward to kicking off their holiday shopping with deal-hunting on Thanksgiving night,” said Kathee Tesija, executive vice president for merchandising at Target.

“Our customers love the thrill of Black Friday shopping and equally enjoy getting an early start on their search for the best deals,” said Peter Reiner, senior vice president for marketing at Toys R US.

In another new twist, Sears, Kmart and Walmart are staggering their “doorbuster” deals this year. At Walmart, for example, some of the superspecial deals will be made available when the doors open at 8 p.m. Others go on sale at 10 p.m. A third wave of deals will become available at 5 a.m. on Black Friday.

“They’re just trying to get people to stay in the store, take advantage of three different sales and shop all night long,” said Jon Vincent of BlackFriday.com.

One welcome Walmart addition that should help limit the shopping madness that sometimes accompanies the “doorbuster” specials: The retailer is guaranteeing that customers who shop during its one-hour event  Thanksgiving night will be able to get an Apple iPad 2 16GB with Wi-Fi for $399 (and get a $75 Walmart gift card), an Emerson 32-inch 720p LCD TV for $148 and an LG Blue-Ray video player for $38 before Christmas.

If you are in the store or in line between 10 and 11 p.m. Thanksgiving night and one of these items sells out, you can buy a “Guarantee Card,” paying for it by midnight. The item will be shipped to that Walmart store for pickup.

In 2008, a Wal-Mart employee was trampled to death by shoppers rushing to get into the store for Black Friday deals.

Retailers also are trying other tactics to lure shoppers on days other than Black Friday. Sears and Target will give shoppers early access to Black Friday bargains in return for their  loyalty. Members of the "Shop Your Way” loyalty club at Sears can shop doorbuster deals starting at 6 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 18.

Is it worth joining?

“Shop Your Way is a fairly middle-of-the-road loyalty program and if you frequently shop at Sears, the points might be worth something to you,” said Jeff Somogyi, an editor at dealnews.com.

At Target, shoppers with a REDcard credit or debit card account can shop exclusive Black Friday sale items starting Wednesday, Nov. 21. Those with a REDcard will also get a 5 percent discount online and in the store, as well as free shipping on all orders.

Caution: Financial experts say opening a new card simply to get a jump on a sale or even a discount price is a bad idea.

“You're using your credit report as an admission pass, and retail store credit card inquiries are among the most damaging for your credit scores,” said John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education at SmartCredit.com. “Further, the interest rate on the REDcard is subprime (22.9 percent APR). That makes carrying debt very expensive and certainly outweighs the value of getting a deal on your shopping trip.”

Or, shop from home
Some doorbuster deals can only be snagged by those who wait in line, but most of the items offered Black Friday can be found online.

“For example, Kohl’s advertises 500 doorbusters, and we expect at least 450 of those to be available online,” Jon Vincent of BFAds.com told me.

The super shoppers at dealnews.com visited Walmart and Target on Thanksgiving Day last year. They noted some of the special prices and then shopped for those same items online. They found that 70 percent of those in-store deals were available online for the same price or less. 

“While there were still low prices on some items that we could only find exclusively in-store, chances are high that you’ll find a comparable deal online if you decide to stay home and do a little research,” said Lindsay Sakraida, features director at dealnews.

Retailers understand that a lot of us prefer to grab those Black Friday deals online. At BFAds.net, Michael Brim told me stores have become more transparent about what they’re going to sell online and when it will become available.

“They usually put the online sales live on Thanksgiving Day morning,” he said. “You can shop all morning Thanksgiving Day and if you miss out on any items online or the item is in-store only, you still have the opportunity to go to the store the next day.”

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Herb Weisbaum is The ConsumerMan. Follow him on Facebook or visit The ConsumerMan website.