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Black Friday, the annual orgy of U.S. consumerism that traditionally marks the start of the holiday shopping season, has long been infamous for fist fights, tramplings and scenes of chaos that routinely end up on the evening news.

For the morbidly curious, there's even a website, Blackfridaydeathcount.com, that tracks the number of people who have been killed or injured in the mayhem.

Now, Black Friday itself is in danger of getting trampled.

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With U.S. retailers desperate to boost sales in an environment marked by sluggish growth and cash-strapped consumers, the deep discounts and hype associated with Black Friday are starting earlier than ever. By the time the actual Black Friday rolls around on Nov. 28 – the day after U.S. Thanksgiving – many consumers will be shopped out.

"Over the last few years Black Friday has lost a lot of significance, and the reason is that there are so many sales," said Sucharita Mulpuru, retail analyst with Forrester Research.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., for example, unveiled its first holiday "rollbacks" on Nov. 1, cutting prices on thousands of items. On Nov. 21 – a full week before Black Friday – it launched a "Pre-Black Friday Event," offering to match or beat competitors' holiday deals on toys, electronics and other merchandise. It also moved up certain items it would typically feature on Black Friday to give customers a jump on the discounts.

"The retail environment is incredibly competitive and we know that our customers are looking to us for the lowest prices and great deals all season long," said Duncan Mac Naughton, chief merchandising officer for Wal-Mart U.S.

Other chains including Target Corp. and Staples Inc. also launched holiday sales long before Black Friday. At hhgregg, a national electronics and appliance store, the retailer moved up many Black Friday specials to Nov. 20, offering discounts of up to 40 per cent on TVs, gadgets and other items.

The chain's "Doorbuster" deals – including a 65-inch Sharp Aquos LED Smart HDTV for $688 (U.S.) and a Samsung front-load washer for $399 – will be available in limited quantities starting at 4 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, when other retailers also plan to open their doors. It's virtually impossible to find a retailer that is waiting until Black Friday proper to launch its Black Friday sale.

The hype surrounding Black Friday has spilled into Canada, where companies are also jumping the gun. A glossy four-page insert from Chrysler Canada Inc. dealers, for example, advertises a one-week "Black Friday Sales Event" that started on Nov. 21. And Future Shop launched an "early Black Friday sale" on appliances and TVs.

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That Black Friday spending is now being spread out over several weeks, instead of a few days, is reflected in data from the U.S. National Retail Federation. According to a recent NRF survey, an estimated 67.6 million people plan to shop on the Thanksgiving weekend – Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday – down 2.6 per cent from last year. The number of consumers who will wait to see what deals are offered before deciding whether to shop, meanwhile, rose 2 per cent to an estimated 72.5 million.

"We could witness a sea change this holiday season as consumers' reliance on extremely deep discounts over the biggest shopping weekend of the year shifts to more of a 'wait-and-see' mentality around what retailers will be offering on Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday," said NRF president Matthew Shay.

Those who wait until after the Thanksgiving weekend may be glad they did, said Dwight Hill, a partner with retail consultants McMillan Doolittle.

"Shoppers who don't blow their entire budget on Black Friday weekend will reap the benefits of Black Friday or better prices during the last two shopping weekends before the holiday," he predicted.

"Last year we were seeing 40 per cent or more off entire purchases at major specialty chains during that period, as retailers affected by two major winter storms that kept shoppers away in early December panicked as they struggled to clear inventories."

Another major reason Black Friday isn't the singular event it used to be is the Internet. About 8 per cent of retail purchases are made online, but during November and December that spikes to 11 or 12 per cent, said Ms. Mulpuru of Forrester. Online sales are growing steadily, and they reflect a broad trend, not just a temporary bump from Cyber Monday.

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"E-commerce has had a huge impact," Ms. Mulpuru said. "There are people who love the sport of Black Friday. There are also a bunch of people who hate shopping and fighting the crowds and looking for parking and not being able to find the item they want. So it's easier just to shop online."

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