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Back in olden days, say about three years ago, Amy Webb used to run out to her driveway on Thanksgiving morning and grab the newspaper ads that would help her plan for Black Friday sales that actually began on Friday.

This year, the Petaluma resident and throngs of other shoppers already have seen online Black Friday ads from the nation's big retailers. And just like Christmas trees now pop up in stores around Halloween, Black Friday sales now break out before some families have put away the leftover turkey and pumpkin pie.

All the advance ads and the Thanksgiving Day store openings still weren't enough to persuade Webb to stand in line this year for the annual kickoff of the holiday sales season. She checked the offers and concluded, "There's nothing that &‘Oh, I have to have that.'<TH>"

But millions of others will be seeking deals, and many will be doing so a day earlier than last year.

"The big trend is stores opening much, much earlier," said Rob Woods, marketing director for the website BlackFriday.com.

"Two years ago, midnight would have been crazy early to open," Woods said. Thanksgiving and the day-after sales used to be two separate events, he said, but "now it's all kind of mashed together."

Up to 147 million Americans may go shopping over the Black Friday weekend, down from 152 million last year, according to the National Retail Federation.

But sales for this holiday season are forecast to rise 4.1 percent to $586 billion, compared to a sales increase of 5.6 percent in 2011.

According to some accounts, Black Friday received its name because historically it's the day when stores turn red ink into black and become profitable for the full year.

Among the stores offering early deals this year will be Wal-Mart, Sears, Kmart and Toys R Us, where their first sales begin at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. (Wal-Mart and Kmart will open Thursday as usual before the Black Friday deals begin.)

Target will open an hour later at 9 p.m. Stores in the Petaluma Village Premium Outlets mall also will be open as early as 9 p.m., with the remainder open by midnight.

Macy's and Kohl's will open at midnight. And J.C. Penney kicks off its sale at 6 a.m. Friday.

Mike Gobble, store manager for the Penney store in Coddingtown Mall, said Black Friday "absolutely" is the store's biggest sales day of the year. It's also now the one time of the year when the retailer offers a sale, rather than stick to its everyday low price policy.

"Our deals are going to be around all day this year," not just in the early hours, Gobble said as staff prepared an expanded toy section near the second floor escalator.

Gobble, who is preparing for his 29th holiday season, said the main trend of Black Friday is that "certain retailers are opening earlier, trying to get that dollar."

Not surprisingly, not everyone likes what some are calling the "Christmas creep" of ever-earlier sale openings.

Target employee Casey St. Clair of Corona has received more than 229,000 signatures on her Change.org petition urging her employer not to open on Thanksgiving Day. The response was similar in size to another Target employee's petition on the same issue last year.

Shelters for Pawnee fire evacuees

Lower Lake High School, 9430 Lake St., Lower Lake, is the official shelter established for people evacuating from the Pawnee fire. It is equipped to handle animals.

The Clearlake Oaks Moose Lodge, 15900 E. Highway 20, Clearlake Oaks, is not authorized by the Office of Emergency Services but is also sheltering fire evacuees, mostly people in campers and RVs who want their animals with them.

There is an authorized Lake County animal services station in an open field at Highway 53 and Anderson Ridge Road in Lower Lake.

"Give Thanksgiving back to families," St. Clair's petition reads in part. "The world won't end if people have (to) wait 7 more hours to buy useless junk that will be outdated in a year anyway."

Target officials responded on their blog: "Our opening time this year reflects the feedback we have heard from our guests — many prefer to shop following their family gatherings rather than in the very early hours of the morning."

Similarly, Wal-Mart spokeswoman Molly Philhours said her company is offering different deal sessions at 8 and 10 p.m. Thursday and 5 a.m. Friday so that customers can find "an event that's right for them."

"We're striking a balance between being competitive and meeting customers' needs," Philhours said.

Wal-Mart for the first time this year will guarantee that guests in line between 10 and 11 p.m. Thursday will be able to purchase an Apple iPad 2, with $75 store gift card, for $399; an Emerson 32-inch HDTV for $148; and an LG Blu-ray player for $38. If the item sells out in the first hour, customers can buy a "guarantee card" to ensure their product will arrive at the store "in time to put under the Christmas tree," Philhours said.

The number of people who say they won't shop on the Black Friday weekend this year has risen to nearly 39 percent, up from 35 percent last year, according to America's Research Group of Summerville, S.C.

Of those who do shop, more say they will be looking for big-ticket items, and more will be expecting bargains.

"I think the consumer's going to be thinking about bigger deals this year," said Britt Beemer, CEO of the research group.

Many who want to find deals already are looking for them, including on Facebook, Twitter, retailers' blogs, emails, mobile apps and other shopping websites.

"The days of waking up Thanksgiving morning to find out what retailers' Black Friday promotions will be has transitioned into an ongoing dialog between companies and their customers starting days in advance," Pam Goodfellow of BIGinsight said in a statement.

While online deals seem perpetually available, Woods of BlackFriday.com said many special Black Friday offers will go up on websites very early Thursday — hours ahead of store openings.

His advice: "Get everything you can online," then figure out whether it's still worth going to line up later at the brick-and-mortar outlet.

Some experts advise shoppers to steer clear of certain items on Black Friday. Customers generally benefit from waiting closer to Christmas to buy toys, and those looking for brand name high-definition TVs typically find lower prices later in the winter, according to dealnews.com.

Among local shoppers entering or exiting the Santa Rosa Plaza mall on Thursday, Brownwynn Millisor of Santa Rosa said she was planning to hit the stores in San Francisco on Black Friday.

"Everything's on sale," said Millisor. "There are great deals."

Santa Rosan Alene Levinson also plans to be out early Friday with her daughters to visit such stores as Victoria's Secret and possibly Sears. She plans to shop at locally owned stores the next day, which has been dubbed "Small Business Saturday." By doing the latter, she can shop local and receive a $25 credit from her American Express account.

"Small businesses, they really need it," Levinson said.

However, the majority of shoppers interviewed, including Elizabeth Nix of Santa Rosa, said they don't plan to rise early next Friday to hit the stores.

"I'm more a day-after-Christmas shopper," Nix said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com.)

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