Black Friday sales have escaped from the confines of the day after Thanksgiving. An increasing number of stores this year will open for shoppers on Thursday -- and many have already started offering up deals to whet consumer appetites. What do the likes of Wal-Mart (WMT -0.73%), Sears (SHLDQ)Home Depot (HD -1.86%), and Zale (NYSE: ZLC) have in store for shoppers this year? And why's it all starting so early? 

Retailers always duke it out during the months of November and December since between 20% and 40% of annual revenues can come from this period. But this year's holiday season has a shortened calendar. And the National Retail Federation predicts that sales will only rise 3.9% compared to 2012 -- a drop from the more than 5% increases for the prior two years.

So the stakes are particularly high for retailers -- and that could benefit shoppers. Here's what you need to know about this year's holiday sales and the Black Friday deals at the end of the rainbow.


1. Why the early start? 

Because customers start buying this early. According to the NRF, more than 60% of holiday shopping last year occurred during the months of October and November. But the early bird deals come with some caveats.

Excepting one-day events like Wal-Mart's Nov. 1 kickoff event, the early bird sales tend to offer savings similar to sales run any other time of the year. Stores want customers to stay interested in the Black Friday sales so they'll still save the best deals for around Thanksgiving. 

2. Best early bird deals 

What bargains can be found now?

Cheaper, generic brand electronics such as flatscreen televisions have been marked down further. Case in point: Wal-Mart's 32-inch Spectre flatscreen for $179 (list price $299). That's because the stores can mark down these products to look like an amazing deal without actually losing a lot of money. 

Likewise, most of the superstores are running month-long toy sales. Wal-Mart, Toys "R" Us and KMart are among the stores offering monthlong deals based off Toy Book catalogs.

Zale is running an online early Black Friday sale offering 20% to 40% off select styles. And Home Depot has some appliance markdowns that include up to 30% off microwaves and 10% off ovens.

3. Here's when to shop for real bargains 

Select stores have started announcing their hours for the Black Friday kickoff and many have opted to start on Thanksgiving. Here's a look at some of the store hours that have already been announced:


Sale Starts

Sale Ends

Toys "R" Us

Thursday 5 p.m.



Thursday  8 p.m.



Thursday 6 a.m.

Friday 11 p.m.


Thursday 8 a.m.

Friday 11 p.m.

Source: BFAds and company press releases

Sears received some backlash when it announced that KMart would open at 6 a.m. on Thursday and stay open until 11 p.m. on Friday -- a full 41 hours of shopping. But stores open on Thanksgiving because customers will show up. According to NRF, 41.8 million people went shopping on Thursday last year -- up from 28.7 million the year before.And the early start has become necessary to keep a competitive edge. Retailers are dependent on earning the most money as possible during the holidays. 

4. What stores rely most on holiday sales? 

The retail sector as a whole is fairly dependent on holiday sale revenues. Last year, jewelry stores were most reliant on holiday sales, according to NRF, followed closely by department stores and electronics and appliances stores.

On an individual store basis, Wal-Mart's fourth-quarter net sales -- which included the holiday months -- accounted for 27% of the overall annual total. Sears' holiday quarter represented over 30% of its annual revenues, while Zale's was 35%. Home Depot's quarter accounted for about 24% of its net sales.

Will Black Friday 2013 end up in the red?

The success of this year's holiday season compared to last comes down to what kind of bargains the stores offer with the real Black Friday sales. If the stores offer better deals than last year, then the NRF's projection could prove conservative.