By BOBBY MCMAHON
ANNAPOLIS (Nov. 25, 2009) - Prices have dropped across the land. Bargain-hungry shoppers have checked items off their Christmas lists. And teenage boys have snooped in closets looking for video game-shaped presents.
The explosion of deals known as Black Friday has begun. And it's not even Friday, yet.
Big-box stores like Best Buy and Wal-Mart have bolstered their Web presence and begun offering online deals days ahead of Black Friday, allowing consumers to start the holiday shopping early.
But experts predict these efforts will not keep people away from the stores come Friday. In fact, this online growth, when combined with the already furious onslaught of shopping mania surrounding the day, will only make Black Friday, which has already ceased being a one-day event, even bigger.
That's right. Bigger. Like "Black Three and a Half Weeks" bigger.
Experts have found more retailers using their online presence to complement their in-store efforts, including offering Web-only deals in the days around Black Friday and releasing sale fliers before the big day as a way to generate excitement and help customers plan their shopping adventures.
These tactics allow retailers to be more flexible and compete more effectively with other stores and Web sites like Amazon.com, said Dan Ackerman, a senior editor at CNET.com, a technology news and reviews Web site. As more retailers hold sales before and after Black Friday, Ackerman sees the holiday of shopping growing from its current form.
"You may still call it Black Friday, but it may refer to a longer period of time," Ackerman said.
Even with the growth online, Ackerman and other experts say that online shoppers and those who would venture into the dark and cold on Friday morning are quite different, noting that the "digital divide" is in full effect.
"I think the people who show up at 5 o'clock in the morning are not in the same demographic as your typical online shopper," Ackerman said.
Laurie Meamber, a marketing professor at the George Mason University School of Management, agrees that online and Black Friday shoppers are not the same, but also does not think Web retailers have a significant effect on the Super Bowl of shopping. She has found that a main draw of the day is the tradition of trudging out with family and friends in the wee hours of the morning searching for deals.
"It's a social experience," Meamber said. "It's part of getting into the holiday spirit."
Black Friday has long been a part of the holiday season for Wendy Ellis, who now works as the director of marketing for Arundel Mills mall in Hanover. As a child, she remembers that the day marked the arrival of Santa Claus, and that her mother and grandmother would take her to see him.
"It's always been an event," Ellis said. "Shopping has always been the main component, but it's always been something more."
Tradition and time with family are not the only draws. An important motivator for some, Meamber said, is the hunt, the thrill that comes with finding an amazing deal on a Blu-Ray player or a flat-screen television. She even had a specific name for that shopper: The Predator.
"That thrill of the chase is really motivating them," Meamber said. She added that the "doorbuster" sales are the kind of incentives that "really draw in that predator shopping orientation."
Overall, predictions are split on how retailers, online or otherwise, will fare this holiday season. Looking toward the future, Ellis is confident the tradition of this carnival of consumer activity is going to be here for quite some time.
"Black Friday always has been and always will be the official start of the holiday shopping season," Ellis said.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.