Sixty million Americans say they plan to shop this holiday weekend.
Black Friday is the traditional start of the holiday shopping season, but lots of retailers began promoting their Black Friday specials weeks ago -- hoping to get an early jump on sales.
And many stores will actually be open on Thanksgiving Day.
Consumers are expected to spend a bit more than last year. But they're doggedly looking for good deals, which are often found online.
Ben and Alissa Helton, with a new baby in tow, recently emerged from Nordstrom Rack in a suburban Seattle shopping center. An online site was offering $50 gift cards to the retailer for just $25. So the Heltons bought two of them.
Ben Helton, like so many others, has taken a pay cut this year, meaning he is being very picky about what he buys. "We're gonna have to look for better deals," he says.
Alissa Helton adds: "If we spend over $300, I'll be really sad."
That's because $300 is the Heltons' cap on spending this year. Their budget is less than the national average: Consumers surveyed for the National Retail Federation said they planned to spend $518 on gifts -- or $11 more than they spent last year.
Cash, Debit Purchases
Ellen Davis, a spokeswoman for the federation, says shoppers are more likely to pay for the gifts with debit cards and cash rather than credit cards.
"The number of people who will use credit cards as a primary form of payment is at its lowest level since 2002," she says. "What that tells us is that people are out there spending on a budget. They're very conscious of how much they've set aside for the holiday season and they don't want to overextend themselves."
Comparison Shopping With Mobile Devices
Technology is also having a profound effect on shopping habits. More than ever, shoppers are using social media sites to get ideas, read reviews and compare prices.
Many shoppers expect to use their mobile devices to guide them to a store and then, once inside, to see if the price they are looking at is the best one available.
Many consumers will skip the mall altogether. While online shopping is still a small part of overall retail sales, it's growing because of people like Tina Estes. "I can armchair shop at midnight if I can't sleep," she says. "I don't have to deal with parking and crowds." The convenience alone has led her to do more online shopping than last year, she adds.
Popular Online Purchases
Amazon.com spokesman Craig Berman says one of the most popular gifts for kids this season is something called My Pillow Pets. Other hot items include a new variation of Scrabble and a talking robot.
Aside from toys, Berman says, Amazon shoppers are buying e-book readers, GPS units and lots of Apple products. For the first time, shoppers can also post a gift card to the online retailer on someone's Facebook wall.
Gift cards remain the No. 1 item on holiday wish lists.