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Sixty million Americans say they plan to shop this Thanksgiving weekend. Black Friday, of course, is the traditional start of the holiday shopping season, but many retailers are well ahead of that curve. They've been promoting Black Friday specials for weeks in an effort to get an early jump on sales.

NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports.

WENDY KAUFMAN: Stores will be opening very early Friday morning. In fact, some will open tomorrow, Thanksgiving Day. Consumers are expected to spend a bit more than last year, but they're doggedly looking for good deals, which are often found online.

Ms. BEN HELTON: Just did a fun little thing with Groupon. Are you familiar with that on Facebook?

KAUFMAN: Ben and Alissa Helton, with new baby in tow, have just come from a Nordstrom Rack in a suburban Seattle shopping center. An online site was offering $50 Rack gift cards for just $25. They bought two of them. Ben Helton, like so many others, has taken a pay cut this year, so he's being very selective.

Mr. HELTON: We're going to have to look for better deals.

Ms. ALISSA HELTON: If we spend over $300, I'll be really sad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELTON: Yeah. It's definitely, that's probably our cap.

KAUFMAN: That's less than average. Consumers surveyed for the National Retail Federation said they planned to spend $518 on gifts, or 11 bucks more than they spent last year. Increasingly, says Ellen Davis of the Retail Federation, shoppers will pay for the gifts not with credit cards but with debit cards and cash.

Ms. ELLEN DAVIS (National Retail Federation): The number of people who will use credit cards as a primary form of payment is at its lowest level since 2002. What that tells us is that people are out there spending on a budget, they're very conscious of how much they've set aside for the holiday season and they don't want to overextend themselves.

KAUFMAN: Technology is having a profound effect on shopping habits. More than ever, shoppers are using social media sites to get ideas, read reviews and compare prices. And speaking of price, many expect to use their mobile devices to guide them to a store and then once inside to see if the price they are looking at is the best one available

But many consumers will skip the mall altogether. While online shopping is still just a small part of overall retail, it's growing because of people like Tina Estes.

Ms. TINA ESTES: I can armchair shop at midnight if I can't sleep. I don't have to deal with parking and crowds, and it's just more convenient.

KAUFMAN: More Internet than last year?

Ms. ESTES: Yeah. I've already done more Internet this year than last year.

KAUFMAN: And what are they buying online? Craig Berman of Amazon.com showed me some of the most popular stuff for kids, beginning with something called pillow pets.

Mr. CRAIG BERMAN (Amazon.com): This is a pig, a pink pig, and we have a purple unicorn. Now, these look like stuffed animals, but then if you roll them over, you can unhook the strap and it turns into a pillow.

KAUFMAN: Other hot items include a new variation of Scrabble and a talking robot.

Mechanical Voice: Look out...

KAUFMAN: Aside from toys, Amazon shoppers are buying book readers, GPS's and lots of things made by Apple, and for the first time they can post a gift card purchase to someone's Facebook wall. Gift cards, it turns out, remain the number one item on holiday wish lists.

Wendy Kaufman, NPR News, Seattle.

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