Ready. Set. Go to bed early if you want to be in line when the first store opens on Black Friday.
Retailers reeling from poor sales during last year's holiday season are opening earlier than ever to get first dibs on customers and their limited dollars.
Toys R Us will swing its doors open at midnight with $3.49 children's DVDs, a $7.99 singing Hannah Montana doll and a $19.99 children's Home Depot workbench, according to a review of store circulars inside today's edition of The State.
The first 100 customers in line also will get a chance to buy a popular Zhu-Zhu robotic hamster.
Walmart will maintain a 24-hour schedule, with some deals starting at midnight, including a $13 Crock-Pot, a $398 HP 17.3-inch laptop and a $148 Sony Blu-ray Disc player.
Old Navy will open at 3 a.m. with jeans and sweaters selling for $15, and other stores will open at 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. for the traditional kickoff to the holiday shopping season.
"Retailers feel it's very important to get the consumer's early dollar," said Doug Fleener, a retail expert based in Lexington, Mass. "It's really important for them to start the season strong."
Retailers are loading up on deals to bring customers in early, including a 32-inch flat-screen TV for $299.99 from Best Buy, which opens at 5 a.m., and a front-loading Whirlpool washer and dryer set for $888 from HH Gregg, opening at 4 a.m.
"The competition is fiercer than ever," said Hanover, Mass.-based retail blogger and publisher Patricia Norins. "These retailers want to gain any type of competitive edge that they can."
Norins expects this Black Friday to see the greatest volume in five years because people strapped for cash will try to stretch their dollars by going for Black Friday deals instead of shopping later in the season.
"The critical word of the holiday season is deals," Norins said. "Now, more than ever, it's part of our psychology."
And unlike previous years, day-after-Thanksgiving sales might not be a barometer for the rest of the season, she said.
Nationally, consumers are expected to spend an average of $682.74 on the holidays this year, a 3.2 percent decline from last year's average of $705, according to the National Retail Federation.
Many stores were caught off guard by last year's sharp economic downturn that started in early fall - well after they had ordered Christmas merchandise, Fleener said. A two-year recession has driven many stores out of business and left others struggling to keep the lights on.
This year, "They don't want to have inventory left over like last year," Fleener said.
That means early shoppers also will have more options as inventory dwindles throughout the season, the retail experts said. Those who wait until the last week or two before Christmas might be left with slim pickings, they said.
"Retailers are more motivated to offer their best deals first," Norins said.