Updated Tuesday, November 20, 2012 at 11:16 PM
Call her old-fashioned, but Bailee Scott still likes to wake up early on Black Friday to join the crowds of bargain hunters lined up outside stores in the wee hours of the morning.
"It's crazy," said Scott, 28, of Shoreline. "Everybody's in a good mood. And it's always just women, no men, running around with cups of coffee."
Scott is among some 33 percent of shoppers who expect to flock to stores Friday, down a notch from 34 percent last year, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.
Black Friday — so-called because it marks the point at which many stores reach profitability for the year — long has been the official start of the holiday-shopping season.
But fierce competition is prompting a record number of large chains, including Target and Wal-Mart, to roll out door-buster deals Thursday night, making Black Friday seem a little less, well, crazy.
"The competitive environment for bricks-and-mortar stores is tougher than ever," said retail consultant Jeff Green. "Those opening on Thanksgiving want you in their stores before you're in anybody else's. They want that sale on Thursday, not Friday, and they're willing to do what it takes."
At the same time, large chains are upping their game online to win back customers from Internet giant Amazon.com. As a whole, they're speeding up deliveries of Internet orders and merging their online and offline strategies to appeal to digitally savvy shoppers.
"We're using the e-commerce channel to extend the holiday-shopping experience," said Paul Gainer, an executive vice president at Disney Store, which began offering "Magical Friday" deals on its website Monday.
Online shopping up
Last year, 38 percent of sales over Black Friday weekend were online, up from 33 percent in 2010, said National Retail Federation spokeswoman Kathy Grannis.
Shoppers, on average, will spend $419 online this holiday season, a 12 percent increase from last year, according to Forrester Research.
A prime cause is the popularity of Internet-connected mobile devices: Forrester found that nearly a fifth of smartphone owners and a fourth of tablet owners recently bought products on their mobile devices.
The devices also make it easy for shoppers to research products and compare prices on the go, leading some to test-drive products in stores, then buy them cheaper online.
The trend, called "showrooming," has become a lightning-rod issue ever since Amazon offered a special discount last December to holiday shoppers who used its price-check app to scan products in stores and buy them on its website.
"Stores are starting to see their competition as Amazon, even more so than one another," Green said.
Kirthi Kalyanam, director of the Retail Management Institute at Santa Clara University in California, said showrooming will only increase as shoppers get more comfortable using price-check apps.
He noted that both online and offline retailers have been innovative about improving the digital shopping experience.
Target, which now offers free Wi-Fi in stores, is sticking QR codes on popular toys to cater to busy parents forced to buy gifts under their children's prying eyes. They can secretly scan the codes with their smartphones, buy from Target's website and get free shipping.
Wal-Mart is testing same-day delivery of popular items in a handful of cities, a tactic Nordstrom also is trying in Bellevue and Seattle.
Amazon, which launched a week of "Black Friday" specials Monday, offers same-day delivery in 10 major markets, including New York and Seattle, and is spending heavily on new distribution centers to make deliveries both faster and cheaper.
"If you're really shopping for discounts, you're not going to beat online," said Craig LaRosa, a principal at design and innovation consultancy Continuum.
"Black Friday is turning into an event, and that's what people are looking for. It's the American version of running with the bulls."
For Bailee Scott, who works in marketing at Seattle's Sorrento Hotel, the post-Thanksgiving shop-fest is family tradition.
She, her mom and three friends usually hit a handful of stores over five hours, starting with Fred Meyer at 5 a.m.
"It's just 'buy one, get one free,' so it's not that great," she said of Fred Meyer's annual sock sale. "But it's fun."
Target on Thanksgiving
Target will open its doors at 9 p.m. Thursday, three hours earlier than last year, while Kmart, Sears, Toys R Us and Wal-Mart begin their holiday sales at 8 p.m.
The shift from Black Friday to Thanksgiving has angered some traditionalists and worker advocates.
A Target employee has collected more than 350,000 signatures to ask the chain to close on Thanksgiving, and about 30,000 people have signed a similar petition for Wal-Mart.
But Bill Frerichs, who oversees 65 Target stores in the Northwest, said many employees look forward to the extra pay they receive Thursday and early Friday.
"I found that a number of stores actually had too many people who volunteered to work those shifts," Frerichs said.
What's more, many shoppers seem fine with heading to the mall before their turkey dinner digests.
Some 41 million people, or 17 percent of consumers, plan to shop Thursday, up from 16 percent last year, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.
Perhaps the biggest question facing retailers this holiday season is the strength of the U.S. economy.
The National Retail Federation predicts holiday sales will rise 4.1 percent, compared with 5.6 percent growth in each of the past two years.
Local economist Dick Conway, citing an above-average job market, says the Seattle area could see an increase of at least 5 percent.
"Our economy is growing significantly faster than the national economy," he said. "That's due in part to the Boeing expansion, which is adding jobs not only in the aerospace sector, but throughout our economy."
The outlook for online sales is even brighter. Forrester Research estimates that U.S. online holiday sales will rise 15 percent to $68.4 billion, up from $59.5 billion last year. That includes a projected 3 percent increase in the number of online holiday shoppers.
Key is market share
The goal for many retailers is to grab market share and not worry about whether the economy will get better.
"The stronger the retailer was going into the year, the stronger they'll come out," said Eric Best, chief executive of Seattle-based Mercent, which helps businesses with their online strategies.
"It's simply about their ability to spend more where it counts — mobile commerce, free shipping and sophisticated marketing programs."
Amy Martinez: 206-464-2923 or firstname.lastname@example.org
The 2012 holiday seasonA look at the numbers.
$749.51 Average amount holiday shoppers will spend
4.1% Projected year-over-year percentage increase in holiday sales
51.8% Percentage of holiday shoppers who'll buy online
$139.92: Average amount that "self-gifters" plan to spend on themselves
32.9%: Percentage of smartphone owners who'll use their devices to research products and compare prices
Source: National Retail Federation
Early store openingsSome big-box chains will try to get a jump on the competition by opening Black Friday Eve.
4 p.m. Thursday Michaels
8 p.m. Thursday Kmart, Sears, Toys R Us, Wal-Mart
9 p.m. Thursday Target
Midnight Best Buy, Dick's Sporting Goods, Kohl's, Macy's, Old Navy, Sports Authority
5 a.m. Friday Big 5 Sporting Goods, Fred Meyer, Home Depot, Lowe's, Office Depot, Staples
6 a.m. Friday Bed, Bath & Beyond, J.C. Penney, OfficeMax, Radio Shack
Source: Seattle Times research
BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Jaylen Abrew stocks Christmas stockings Monday at the CityTarget store in downtown Seattle. Target stores will open on Thanksgiving at 9 p.m. for shoppers to get an early start on Black Friday deals.