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Stores launch Black Friday deals early, often before their doors open

Not everyone likes to schlep to stores before dawn to battle crowds for a cheap TV or a pair of boots. And, really, you don't have to. Plenty of stores are pulling the trigger on Black Friday deals early and, in many cases, even before their doors open.

Kohl's opens at midnight Friday but will roll out more than 500 early bird specials on kohls.com Wednesday, its earliest Black Friday deals ever. The Disney Store started its week of "Magical Friday'' on Monday and will post new sale items every day leading up to Friday on DisneyStore.com/magicalfridaydeals.

Staples took a similar "why wait?" attitude and kicked off Black Friday deals on Sunday, five days in advance. Doors don't open until 5 a.m. Friday, but different items are on sale throughout the week. Go to staples.com on your smartphone for hourly flash sales from 11 p.m. Thursday to 5 a.m. Friday.

Sam's Club came up with its own word to describe shopping on the Net and sleeping in: cybernate. Members can shop online for select Black Friday items starting at 11 p.m. Wednesday and get free shipping to most states on electronics, toys, jewelry and other products. It also has online-only Black Friday specials, including a 55-inch Sanyo TV for $648 and a cedar swing set for $749, both thankfully with free shipping.

The party starts early at Walmart, too. Online deals start early on Thursday (Walmart isn't saying exactly when) and extend through Friday, with free shipping on certain orders or free store pickup. New this year, customers who sign up for emails at Walmart.com, go to its Facebook page or download Walmart's mobile app will get first dibs on some items before they hit the stores.

Refusing to be outdone, Amazon has been offering Black Friday-related specials for days. The site promotes current deals, upcoming deals and even ones that you missed, which seems cruelly unnecessary. It tracks how many items have been "claimed" and has a countdown of when deals expire.

Here's the bottom line: The idea of a traditional Black Friday, when shoppers stampede into stores before dawn, appears to be waning or at least spreading out over a longer period of time. Customers want to shop at their convenience, and retailers are eager to provide as many opportunities as possible. The stakes are high: Nearly half of all Americans (147 million) are expected to shop at stores and on websites during Black Friday weekend, according to the National Retail Federation. That's a lot of spending at a time when the economy greatly needs it.

I could fill the paper with specifics about deals at every store and website. Instead, my advice is to identify the big stuff on your shopping list, then scour the ads and the Internet for the best deals. Maybe heading to the stores in the wee hours is your best bet. But maybe sitting in front of a computer in your PJs is, too.

• • •

The Smart Bettys of the world might like this new coupon website that offers daily deals with a charitable twist. For every purchase made on SmartBetty.com, 10 percent goes to a local charity.

The site was started last year in Ontario and has about two dozen U.S. franchises. Doug Jacke of Safety Harbor and other investors bought the Tampa Bay franchise this past summer and plan to roll out local deals in the next few months.

First up is building the customer email list, another opportunity for fundraising. Cathy MacDonald, the franchise's director of philanthropy, is offering schools, charities and other groups $1 for every valid email gathered.

The Humane Society of Pinellas collected emails during its Bark at the Ball Park event in the summer and received $600. Seems a lot easier than selling wrapping paper, provided you don't mind adding more stuff to your inbox.

MacDonald says they want about 10,000 emails before marketing the site aggressively to local merchants. Deals will initially focus on Pinellas-centric products and services, from restaurants to salons, then expand to Hillsborough County. To contact MacDonald, email her at cmacdonald@smartbetty.com.

Susan Thurston can be reached at sthurston@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3110.

Stores launch Black Friday deals early, often before their doors open 11/19/12 [Last modified: Monday, November 19, 2012 10:00pm]
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