(MCT) — Cierra Hobson is a die-hard Black Friday shopper.
Every year she queues in front of one of her favorite stores, where she waits, in her pajamas, in hopes of bagging a good deal.
This year, Hobson and other deal-seekers will find some twists on the post-Thanksgiving Day ritual: coupons delivered via mobile phones and deeper discounts, maneuvers designed to make shopping easier for consumers and to set retailers on a strong start to the biggest shopping period of the year. But perhaps the biggest change will be an earlier start to the holiday rush.
Black Friday historically launched the day after Thanksgiving. But in recent years, stores have opened at 4 a.m., then midnight. Last year, retailers created a stir by opening at 10 p.m. Thursday. This year, Sears and Wal-Mart announced plans to open at 8 p.m.
"The name of the game this holiday season is who can do it best," said National Retail Federation spokeswoman Kathy Grannis.
"When (early openings) started in 2009, things were a little bit worse off in terms of consumer confidence," Grannis added. "At that point it was very necessary for retailers to get out there before anybody else, and that literally meant before midnight."
This year, holiday spending is expected to rise 4.1 percent, according to the retail federation. Last year, more than 24 percent of Black Friday shoppers were out before midnight and nearly 39 percent of shoppers were in the stores before 5 a.m.
Wal-Mart plans to greet shoppers with the likes of $89 Wii consoles and a $38 Blu-ray player. At Sears, there will be perks on sale items for members of its shopper loyalty program.
Both retailers are touting in-store pickup, allowing customers to buy items online and pick them up at the store, avoiding checkout lines.
The Disney Store plans to begin offering Black Friday deals on the Monday before Thanksgiving, though Disney stores will open at midnight in some markets and 5 a.m. in others. Ads leaked to Internet deal sites say Target stores will open at 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving.
Last year, Wal-Mart recorded its most customer traffic at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving night, said spokesman Steven Restivo, adding that the retailer relied on focus groups, online surveys and other feedback to help it decide to open two hours earlier this year. "Our customers told us they loved our Thanksgiving event last year and wanted it again."
At Sears, staying open 26 consecutive hours through Black Friday gives its customers the flexibility they want and makes good business sense, said spokesman Brian Hanover.
"There's a segment of Sears customers who want that thrill of holiday shopping to start as soon as their Thanksgiving dinner ends," he said. "Traditionalists," he added, can wait for door busters at 4 a.m.
Despite discounts that often go beyond 50 percent, stores still make money on the sales, retail experts say. That's because shoppers in physical stores tend to spend more than they planned, said Sanjay Dhar, professor of marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
In the store, "you end up making purchases that aren't as marked down, in addition to the door-buster deals," he said.
Opening earlier and staggering door-buster deals is not only a good way to make money, but it's also necessary for crowd control, retail watchers say. In 2008, a store employee was trampled to death in a Black Friday door-buster stampede at a Long Island, N.Y., Wal-Mart.
Hobson said she doesn't plan to start shopping Thanksgiving night, but she said she'll be up before dawn to catch sales at Express, a clothing store.
"Just knowing that everybody is doing the same thing I'm doing on the same day feels like the beginning of Christmas," she said.
Others worry that super-early openings could backfire.
Sheri Petras, CEO of CFI Group, a Michigan-based consultancy, said store employees grumpy from having to leave their Thanksgiving festivities will take out their anger on customers.
"Consumers will not spend as much with cranky employees," she said.
Some employees at Wal-Mart, Sears and Target say they'd like the day off.
Change.org, an activist website, said Friday that more than 20 new petitions were submitted by employees and consumers asking retailers to reconsider their Thanksgiving evening openings.
It's the second year the website has administered petitions calling for retailers to stick to traditional Black Friday openings.
In a statement distributed by OUR Walmart, a labor rights group, Wal-Mart employee Mary Pat Tifft, of Wisconsin, said she would be "devastated" if she had to work on Thanksgiving, because she is expecting her son home from Afghanistan for the holiday.
"This early opening is one more example of Walmart's disconnect with the workers who keep its stores running and disregard for all of our families. As the largest employer in the country, Walmart could be setting a standard for businesses to value families, but instead, this is one more Walmart policy that hurts the families of workers at its stores," she said.