Just a few years ago, Black Friday still meant something. Some retailers might start displaying their Christmas decorations a bit earlier, but it wasn't until the day after Thanksgiving that they'd deploy the major sale prices and kick off the holiday shopping season.

In recent years, though, the starting date for that rush of retail madness has crept forward. Sales began appearing in the week of Thanksgiving, and more chains started opening with alluring deals on Thanksgiving Day itself. In short order, holiday shopping season expanded to include all of November.

So if you were hoping that candy, costumes, and spookiness could hold the line on Christmas creep at Nov. 1, you probably should have known better. This year, here we are, a week before Halloween, and a number of major retailers -- led by Walmart (WMT -1.23%) -- have already begun their holiday season sales. In one sense, that's beneficial to consumers, but it's also confusing, because with two months of nonstop big sales, it's even harder to know when to buy in order to get the best deals.

Retailers also run a risk with this extension of the holiday shopping season. Pushing it too far could sap their ability to generate any sense of urgency among customers, and dilute the shopping frenzy that has led them to make major purchases on Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

A person carries a stack of wrapped gifts.

The holiday shopping season has already begun. Image source: Getty Images.

Walmart leads the way

There are plenty of people who still don't begin shopping for presents in earnest until Black Friday. But due to a quirk of the calendar, this would be a particularly challenging year for retailers to squeeze their entire holiday surge into that traditional period. With November beginning on a Friday, Thanksgiving will come late, leaving six fewer shopping days between it and Christmas than last year. So it's natural that retailers picked this moment to again look at ways to extend the season.

Walmart has taken the lead on that: It's launching its holiday deals on Oct. 25 with what it's calling an "Early Deals Drop" on its website. These Black Friday-like sales include a trampoline for $99, an air fryer for $39, and a 55-inch 4K HDR Smart TV for $398. All the offers are described as "while supplies last," which could mean the products really are available in limited quantities -- or it could just be an attempt to generate customer urgency.

Walmart is also offering free next-day delivery on "hundreds of thousands of eligible items," according to a press release. That's an improvement on its current two-day free shipping offer (and an obvious reaction to Amazon's recent acceleration of Prime's free shipping).

The retail giant isn't alone in pushing the winter holiday season into October. Best Buy (NYSE: BBY) has also launched a next-day delivery offer on "thousands of items," according to a press release. And the electronics retailer's website now features a holiday gift center with suggestions and recommendations intended to point shoppers in the right direction for whoever is on their list.

Target (NYSE: TGT) joined the early holiday party by expanding its shipping and pickup options -- but it's not offering free shipping until Nov. 1. The cheap-chic retailer is also touting its commitment to customer service, noting that it's adding "nearly $50 million in payroll compared to last holiday to ensure more team members are available to assist guests during peak hours, and doubling the number of team members dedicated to fulfillment, including same-day services, so guests can get their orders in as soon as an hour," according to a press release.

Buyer, be aware

A more-extended holiday sales season can benefit consumers with perks like free shipping, and of course, better prices. It's easy, however, to get swept up in the excitement and make budget-busting shopping mistakes.

With retailers dedicating the next two months to putting temptation in your path, it's even more important to sit down in advance and make both a shopping list and a budget. Research the regularly available prices for the items on your list, so you'll be better positioned to evaluate the season's deal offers.

There's a limit to how much discretionary income you can responsibly spend over the course of the holiday season. If you burn through that money early and then keep spending on the deals that appear later, we all know what happens: credit card balances next year that just don't go away.