Let the holiday shopping madness begin ... please?

That is the silent plea coming from U.S. retailers, which are gearing up for Black Friday, the chaotic and competitive day after Thanksgiving (November 22) when stores offer eye-popping, limited-time deals to kick off the holiday shopping season.

But this year retailers are heading into the Thanksgiving weekend on edge, worried that consumers will keep a tight hold on their purse strings in the face of a shaky economic environment and lack of must-have products.

To try to jump-start sales, many retailers rolled out holiday deals earlier than ever and Wal-Mart Stores Inc cut prices on hot toys on September 30.

Despite retailers' herculean efforts to get shoppers into stores early, with less than one week to go until Thanksgiving signs are emerging that consumers are hesitant to shop.

Undeterred, retailers have more tricks up their sleeves, hoping they will finally be able to convince consumers that Thanksgiving is time to get their holiday shopping underway.

Some retailers, including Wal-Mart and Circuit City Stores Inc, will offer special deals on their Web sites on Thanksgiving day, while others will open at midnight Thanksgiving night to jump-start the weekend madness.

Retailers understand that store traffic is likely to be down this holiday compared with prior years and that they have to pull out all the stops to make sure that limited traffic is coming to their stores instead of others, said Frank Badillo, senior economist for the consulting firm TNS Retail Forward.


Retailers count on the Christmas season to ring up 25 percent to 40 percent of their annual sales, but this year holiday sales are forecast to rise at their slowest pace in five years, according to the National Retail Federation.

Mall traffic has been on the decline, and ShopperTrak, which measures customer traffic primarily in malls, expects a 2.5 percent drop in overall foot traffic for the holidays.

In the past week, department store operators J.C. Penney Co Inc and Kohl's reported lower third-quarter profits and cut their earnings outlook for the holiday season.

Penney said sales weakened dramatically in September and October as shoppers pulled back due to the weak housing market, mortgage and credit market concerns, and rising fuel prices.

That has Penney facing a glut of unsold goods, meaning shoppers will find more items marked down in its stores.

Discounts should be plentiful this holiday as retailers try to drum up excitement amid a dearth of many new products.

The 'It' items this year are not handbags but iPhones and Wii's, said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, referring to Apple Inc's new iPhone and Nintendo Co Ltd's Wii video game console.

Shoppers are already seeking the best deals.

Online traffic to Black Friday advertising Web sites, which list what they say are copies of retailer's ads, is rising earlier this year than it did a year ago, according to Hitwise, with searches on the term black Friday ads up 91 percent compared to last year.


Consumers who show up at the crack of dawn on Black Friday will find door-busting deals and other gimmicks.

The first 1,500 customers who arrive at King of Prussia Mall in Pennsylvania on Black Friday with a special voucher printed from the mall's Web site will get a survival bag, complete with bottled water and chocolate covered pretzels.

Wal-Mart's Sam's Club warehouses will open at 5 a.m. and offer a continental breakfast, while Best Buy Co Inc will hand out coffee and doughnuts to those shoppers who line up at its stores in the wee hours.

When the doors finally open, Black Friday Ads, a Web site that publishes what it says are copies of retailer's newspaper ads, says Circuit City will offer a Compaq Presario Laptop for $299.99, and Costco Wholesale Corp will sell a Philips 47-inch LCD TV for $1,499.99 -- although prices can vary and stores can cut them further to respond to competitors.

People have money, but they just are being more cautious about how they spend it, said Candace Corlett, a principal with consulting firm WSL Strategic Retail.

With the lack of true must-have products, It's going to be up to the retailers to develop some temptation, she said.