While Black Friday shopping has traditionally started before dawn on the day after Thanksgiving, big-box retailers nationwide are now opening even earlier, hoping to maximize holiday sales by opening as early as 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving.

In Maine, shoppers will still have to wait until Friday. Or midnight Thursday, to be exact.

Although L.L. Bean keeps its store in Freeport open 24 hours a day, year-round, most stores larger than 5,000 square feet are prohibited by state law from opening on Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter.

Stores that do plan to open at the stroke of midnight are likely to see cautious shoppers who plan to target only the best deals and spend only slightly more than they did last year.

Krysty Woodcock of Augusta said she’s planning to brave the midnight sales at Best Buy and Walmart to hunt for a deal on a television for her family.

“I’m doing all the crazy ones,” Woodcock said. “There are pretty good sales. It’s worth it.”

The town of Freeport plans to turn Black Friday shopping into an event. Santa will arrive just after 11 p.m. on Thursday, riding into town on Amtrak’s Downeaster train.

He’ll lead a “fun run” on a Harley-Davidson just before stores open at midnight.

At the Maine Mall in South Portland, 51 stores ranging from Best Buy and Build-A-Bear Workshop to Macy’s and Yankee Candle will open at midnight. The entire mall will open at 6 a.m. Friday.

“Black Friday is a crucial part of the holiday, but starting as early as mid-October retailers begin to see holiday sales,” said Curtis Picard, executive director of the Retail Association of Maine. “Retailers look at more than just one day or just one weekend for sales.”

Across the country, as many as 147 million people are expected to shop during Black Friday weekend, down slightly from the 152 million who planned to do so last year, according to the National Retail Federation.

Last year, an estimated 220 million shoppers visited stores and websites over Thanksgiving weekend, the retail group said.

While stores in Maine won’t be able to open until midnight, employees of those stores will likely have to work on the holiday, stocking shelves or doing inventory. The state Department of Labor said there’s no law restricting work hours on a holiday.

That means the stores that open at midnight can have employees work on Thanksgiving night to prepare for shoppers.

Even with the allure of midnight madness sales, some consumers prefer to shop early and avoid the crowds.

“There’s nothing that important that would make me deal with lines, parking and the crowds to maybe save $20,” said Susan Perkins of Fairfield on Tuesday. “By shopping today, I avoided the crowds. There’s already great sales. There’s half-off at some stores already.”

Stores have been holding sales earlier and earlier in the season. Holidays such as Veterans Day have become an increasingly important part of the overall holiday shopping season, Picard said.

Veterans Day coincides with Remembrance Day in Canada, drawing shoppers from the north to stores in Maine, Picard said.

Not since 2007 has Black Friday fallen this early in the year, so shoppers have a little extra time between Thanksgiving and Christmas to finish their lists. Those extra days may not translate into blockbuster sales growth, retail experts said.

Total holiday sales, which typically account for more than one-third of retailers’ annual revenue, are expected to increase 4.1 percent this year, compared to 5.6 percent a year ago, according to the National Retail Federation. The Retail Association of Maine does not forecast results for the state.

Sales for some items are expected to be brisk, even among cautious shoppers.

The hottest toys this year include LeapFrog Enterprises’ $99.99 LeapPad 2 Explorer tablet, MGA Entertainment’s Lalaloopsy dolls, Mattel’s Monster High Ghouls Rule dolls and Mega Brands’ Mega Bloks Skylanders construction sets, according to TimetoPlayMag.com.

Also likely to sell well are flat-screen televisions, such as the 32-inch Emerson for $148 at Walmart, and other electronics such as Apple’s iPad.

Analysts also expect luxury brands to sell well.

“Last year, we saw a return to more higher-end purchases and more luxury brands. During the recession, that had disappeared,” Picard said. “We’re seeing the economy improving baby step by baby step.”

Stores have put more emphasis on layaway plans this year, and have increased their use of technology to keep shoppers aware of deals through Facebook, Twitter, blogs and online advertising.

The days of waiting for sales promotions in the daily newspaper on Black Friday are over, as retailers telegraph weeks in advance what their holiday promotions will be, analysts said.

“It’s critical for retail companies to constantly evolve as consumers do, and right now shoppers want great deals, good value, and convenience — exactly what we’re seeing with this season’s late and early openings, price-matching, layaway, and mobile offerings,” said National Retail Federation President and CEO Matthew Shay.

Layaway has played a bigger role in retailers’ holiday strategies, with Walmart cutting its layaway fee from $15 to $5 to compete with rivals that offer lower-priced layaway plans.

Toys R Us waived its layaway fee on purchases made by Oct. 31, and Kmart cut its layaway service fee from Sept. 7 to Nov. 17.

Even with the slowly improving economy, shoppers are paring their lists and checking prices.

“You can’t buy gifts for everyone,” said Perkins, from Fairfield. “Each year, the list gets a little smaller. Just family.”

Staff Writer Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

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