CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- By the time many people sit down for Thanksgiving dinner, others across Charlotte will have been camped out for more than 24 hours, awaiting Black Friday door-buster specials on everything from iPads to sweaters.

In front of the Best Buy in Steele Creek s Rivergate shopping center, a dozen people were already camped Wednesday afternoon, with a pair of tents pitched on the sidewalk next to the store s front door.

Most of those sitting on folding camping chairs were waiting to buy a $179 40-inch LCD television from Toshiba, marked down by $240. The special doesn t take effect until Best Buy opens at midnight on Thanksgiving.

Camping out before Black Friday is a tradition for childhood friends Aldo Pineda, 20, and Anthony Toala, 19.

We ve been doing it since eighth grade, said Pineda, now a sophomore at UNC Chapel Hill. The first woman in line arrived at the store at about 9 a.m. Wednesday, and Pineda and Toala followed soon after to secure their spot.

We have our own little dinner here, said Pineda.

Their families will come by Thursday evening with trays of food from their Thanksgiving meals.

Passersby gawked at the pair Wednesday, with a few people asking if they were really waiting for Black Friday already We re dedicated! yelled Pineda as some people laughed and shook their heads.

But while Black Friday frenzy might be a curiosity for those who don t partake, retailers hope shoppers such as Pineda power them to a strong finish in a still-uncertain economy.

Stores have pushed their opening times earlier than ever this year, with major retailers including Wal-Mart, Target, Toys R Us, Sears and Kmart all starting their big sales Thanksgiving evening. Another wave of stores, including Macy s and Charlotte-based Belk, will open their doors at midnight.

We had such a strong response last year, and knew the trend would be to open earlier, so we decided to move our opening to midnight, said Belk spokeswoman Jessica Graham, via email. The opening is three hours earlier than last year s which was itself a record-early time.

Only a handful of major retailers, including J.C. Penney and Dillard s, have stuck with early Friday morning openings.

High retail stakes

For retailers, the stakes are high: The holidays are always their busiest season, but the overall economic recovery remains sluggish, and many consumers are wary of effects from the possible fiscal cliff in 2013.

To lure shoppers, many companies are again turning to doorbuster deals, such as a $399 iPad 2 at Wal-Mart or a $199 X-Box 360 video game bundle at Target.

Some stores, such as J.C. Penney and Sears, have struggled mightily with bad financial results, and could use this holiday season as a chance to turn things around.

Right after Black Friday will be Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday. And Free Shipping Day comes Dec. 17.

The National Retail Federation forecasts holiday sales will increase 4.1 percent this year, totaling $586 billion. In part, that s because an earlier Thanksgiving holiday means an extra week in the holiday shopping season.

Last year, the NRF said Black Friday weekend spending totaled $52 billion, a record. Almost a quarter of those who shopped last Black Friday took advantage of Thanksgiving evening or midnight openings last year, according to an NRF survey.

This much is clear: Millions will turn out Friday, vying for deeply discounted televisions, toys and more. Local and unconventional retailers are getting in on the act too: South End beer store Good Bottle Co. is offering 10 percent off craft beers, and the Goodyear in uptown is offering tires on sale for $60.44 each.

Worker protests

The earlier openings have sparked protest again from retail workers, much like last year. A Target employee from California started an online petition on asking Target to push back its 9 p.m. opening to let associates have time with their families. The petition amassed more than 369,000 signatures.

A group of Wal-Mart workers led by groups including the United Food and Commercial Workers union and its affiliate, Our Walmart is also planning strikes and pickets at stores on Black Friday. The groups hope to draw attention to what they say are low wages and poor working conditions, and were spurred in part by the decision to start holiday deals on Thanksgiving.

The group Our Walmart couldn t be reached Wednesday to see whether there are any planned protests at stores in the Charlotte region. The company has said the workers planning to protest represent a small fraction of its workforce of 1.4 million employees.

J.C. Penney, bucking the prevailing trend, pushed its Black Friday opening back two hours from last year, to 6 a.m. The retailer attempted to cast its decision as a return to core American values. (J.C. Penney) is honoring the American tradition of Thanksgiving by keeping our stores closed on this special day, the company said in a news release.
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