Black Friday this year may be a day to sleep in.
It's not that the deals aren't decent. It's that savvy shoppers can snap up many of the sale items for advertised Black Friday prices—or even less—before the big day.
Retailers have been pushing holiday promotions earlier in recent years as a way to compete for sales and get consumers' attention before they have run through their limited budgets. (This year, the buzz began in August.). "As the most competitive time of year, this is certainly not the time for retailers to shy in the corner about their promotions," said Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation, the industry's trade group.
That's blurred the lines of Black Friday—traditionally one of the biggest bargain-hunting days.
"I think the term Black Friday is very valid, it's just not Friday anymore," said Brent Shelton, a spokesman for deal site FatWallet.com. "It has become this weeklong event."
Retailers aren't just offering "Black Friday-like" or "pre- Black Friday" sales earlier in the week. They're taking some of the items advertised in Black Friday circulars and making them available at those same prices hours and days in advance. "Think of it as extra opportunity to get the items you want, earlier," Shelton said—without the annoyance of cutting Thanksgiving dinner short or waking up at 2 a.m.
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Wal-Mart announced Tuesday that a Nov. 22 sale will meet or beat competitors' advertised Black Friday prices on more than 100 items. "At 8 a.m. this Friday, we're turning up the heat on our competition," said Steve Bratspies, senior vice president of general merchandise, at a media tour that day. Among the deals: A LeapPad 2 for $40 instead of $79, one of the Black Friday deals from Toys "R" Us.
In some cases, only certain customers can gain early access. Gap sent out 50-percent-off coupons for its store-brand cardholders to "shop our Black Friday event one week early" Nov. 21 to 23. Best Buy plans to open six doorbuster deals on Nov. 24 for its reward club members, and more to elite and elite plus members—those who have spent at least $1,500 or $3,500—on Nov. 25.
At Sears, Shop Your Way members can peruse more than 1,000 Black Friday sale items from Nov. 22 to 23; sister store Kmart will allow its members a shopping window on Nov. 24 for 100 advertised items. Deals, the company said, will include a Kenmore French door refrigerator for $1,300 at Sears instead of $2,600, and a RCA 42" TV at Kmart for $300 instead of $500.
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Then there are the growing numbers of Black Friday deals available online, sometimes before the stores open.
"If you happen to be up Wednesday night into Thursday morning, it's not such a bad idea to go online and check," said Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld.org.
Sports Authority announced its doorbusters will be online at 12:01 a.m. Eastern on Thanksgiving Day, well before its stores open at 6 p.m. Radio Shack stores don't open until 8 a.m. on Black Friday, but the retailer will offer its Black Friday deals online on Thanksgiving.
Nor have web retailers haven't been shy about starting their sales earlier. Amazon plans to start its Black Friday deals on Sunday, Nov. 24, with new deals released each day, sometimes as frequently as every 10 minutes.
Shelton said it wouldn't be surprising to see big contenders such as Amazon and Newegg match or beat bricks-and-mortar competitors' prices in the days leading up to Black Friday.
For consumers, the trend has benefits and risks. Early access gives shoppers the luxury of scaling back on Black Friday—to be more strategic about which stores they visit, or stay home altogether, said Dworsky. But the longer stretch of sales could prompt more mall trips during the week, with more opportunity for impulse purchases and budget busting. "There's a little Black Friday burnout," he said.
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Even shoppers who want to wait for the Black Friday frenzy may want to check their impulse for a more practical reason: Price. "You can't assume when an ad has 500 doorbusters, that every one of those items is the lowest price of the year," Dworsky said. Check price-comparison sites to compare offers and historical prices.
According to a price study from NerdWallet.com, a Macy's doorbuster for an $80 Tommy Hilfiger jacket is priced the same as during the Veteran's Day sale earlier this month, while a $199 KitchenAid stand mixer in Target's Black Friday ad was recently on sale at the retailer for $184.
—By CNBC's Kelli B. Grant. Follow her on Twitter @kelligrant.