Update, Monday 7:08 a.m. PST: Added information on Wal-Mart's Black Friday deals.
Usually Black Friday is a good time of year for consumers and retailers. It's when retailers get "in the black" by getting rid of a lot of excess inventory through offering drastic discounts.
This year is different. The economy has crumbled, consumers plan on spending less, and at least for those shopping for electronics, there are fewer viable options with many Circuit City stores set to close.
Some bargain hunters have complained that, so far, they haven't seen as many great deals as they're used to this time of year as the circular Black Friday ads for major retailers get leaked ahead of time.
CNET News caught up with some retail and Black Friday specialists to ask them if and where good deals can be found this season.
For electronics, the best deals may not be found at the Best Buys and Wal-Marts of the world this year, says Daniel de Grandpre, CEO of Dealnews, a bargain-tracking site. He recommends regional competitors to the international chains. "Look towards MicroCenter, Fry's Electronics, Meijer, and others for better Black Friday deals. MicroCenter's weekend sale has some outstanding deals."
There will also be great deals on the Web. Not just online-only retailers like Newegg.com and Amazon.com, but the Web sites of your favorite stores, too. All major retailers with Web stores maintain different inventories for their brick-and-mortar and online outlets, and will try to entice customers with "Web only" discounts.
A lot more sites will be enticing consumers with offers of free shipping this year. "Free shipping will be prevalent," as will specials on gift cards or offers of no sales tax, according to John Squire, chief strategy officer for Coremetrics, which tracks online retail sales. Also look for more online coupons and "minimum basket values," which are free goods or other enticements if you spend a certain amount of money.
Despite all of this, uncertainty is rampant among retailers.
"In the past, these things were a lot easier to predict than this year," said Squire of Coremetrics. In years past, holiday sales were generally up 20 percent on Black Friday and the following Monday, and the top sales day has been easy to pinpoint as December 9.
"But since the drop of the stock market and complete falloff in consumer spending in October...it's hard to give distinct numbers for Black Friday or Cyber Monday this year."
But that doesn't mean holiday discounts won't be as generous this year. Dealnews' de Grandpre says being less aggressive on prices this year would be a risky strategy.
"Shoppers are savvier than ever. They have access to far more information than ever," by doing advance comparison shopping with Black Friday tracking sites, he said. "If a retailer doesn't offer a suitable 'doorbuster' to drive traffic to its stores, buyers will look for someone else who does."
Some retailers are doing Black Friday month specials, rather than confining their deep discounts to just the day following Thanksgiving.
Black Friday "is the best single day for bargains, without question. However, there are Black Friday-like deals happening now," according to de Grandpre. "(Beginning in October), we've already seen a Blu-ray player for $170 with $70 in free Blu-ray movies--akin to getting the player for $100. We've also seen a 42-inch 720p LCD HDTV for $600, and a Kingston 32GB USB Flash Drive for $30, both with free shipping."
Kmart, for example, officially started offering "Early Black Friday" deals on November 2 (registration required), in an attempt to entice buyers who are expected to be more conservative about their spending this holiday.
Still, the long Thanksgiving weekend is a key one for retailers looking to lure consumers in droves. On Monday, for instance, Wal-Mart touted its "three days of Black Friday," which it's kicking off with online deals starting Thursday ahead of in-store offerings Friday and Saturday.
The Consumer Electronics Association says consumers it's polled this year plan to spend $200 less on the holidays, and retailers were bracing early for reduced demand this season.
Clearly, buying will be down across the board for the holiday season, said Squire of CoreMetrics. The key is retailers being able to deliver the right mix of merchandise that price-conscious consumers want.
"For merchandisers that have a broad selection, and ones they can change around, they're going to do really well," he said. "Those that have erred on the side of luxury goods will struggle."