DECATUR — As the big-box retailers in recent years have altered their Black Friday strategies — like opening on the evening of Thanksgiving Dayshoppers are still figuring out theirs.

Zach Steele, 16, and Michael Davis, 13, were the first in line at the Decatur Best Buy this morning — by about four hours. They arrived at the Best Buy entrance at 4:30 a.m., and took turns sleeping in a one-person tent with no one yet behind them in line.

"We could've slept in, we could've showed up at 8 a.m., and we still would've been first," Steele said.

The two boys, who stood ahead of hundreds of other bargain hunters, said it was still worth the wait for a $180 50-inch TV. National retailers hope that's still the case as they try to fend off the growing online competition from Amazon and others.

That can mean opening earlier than rivals on the holidays, like Best Buy, Target, and Walmart in Decatur, or even jumping into new product categories. The fight for market share comes as analysts at Bain say Amazon is expected to take half of the holiday season's sales growth. And Amazon is the top destination for people to begin holiday shopping, according to a September study by market research firm NPD Group.

"The retailers are in survival mode. It's about stealing each other's market share," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD. "Amazon is the Grinch. They're stealing the growth."

With the national jobless rate at a 17-year-low of 4.1 percent and consumer confidence stronger than a year ago, analysts project healthy sales increases for November and December. The National Retail Federation trade group expects sales for that period to at least match last year's rise of 3.6 percent and estimates online spending and other non-store sales will rise 11 to 15 percent.

Amazon is expected to be a big beneficiary as it cements loyalty among its Prime members and moves into new services and private-label merchandise. The company has introduced more than 20 such brands in the past two years in clothing, electronics, groceries and more, says Bain.

That leaves stores looking at rivals to see where they can pick up sales. There are extra dollars up for grabs this year, after thousands of store locations have closed and several retailers, including Gymboree and Toys R Us, filed for bankruptcy protection.

Greg Foran, CEO of Walmart's U.S. division, said that the retail giant's holiday shopping season appeared to be off to a good start. It got things going in the first minutes of Thursday with an online sales event that featured a range of deals from toys to TVs to slow cookers and Google Home mini gadgets.

"We are in good shape," Foran told The Associated Press. "We have a bit of momentum and we had a good kickoff online, and with a bit of luck we are going to have a good 24 hours and be ship shape for the weekend, and go from here to the 25th of December."

Migayla Riley, also at the front of the Best Buy line, said the chase for the Black Friday deals still make it fun for her family.

"My daughter's at Walmart, we're cleaning up over there," Riley said.

Target CEO Brian Cornell recently noted that up to $60 billion in consumer spending will be up for the taking in the next few years, and said the chain has been picking up market share in such areas as clothing.

The Thanksgiving weekend, when stores go all-out to attract shoppers, can be an indication of how well they'll do through the season. About 69 percent of Americans, or 164 million people, intend to shop at some point during the five-day period from Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday, according to a survey released by the National Retail Federation. It expects Black Friday to remain the busiest day, with about 115 million people planning to shop then.

Both Walmart and Target have been expanding their exclusive toys offerings. Walmart is throwing parties in its stores including ones where kids can play with new toys. Best Buy created its first toy booklet for the holidays. And in its Black Friday ad, the chain features Barbies among smart TVs and other electronics.

Chris Baldwin, CEO of BJ's Wholesale Club, says it is offering more toys and clothes. In clothing, it's offering key national brands in areas like casual athletic wear amid rampant store closures. And he says clothing sales are up by at least 10 percent as people don't go to the mall as much.

"There's no question that consumer spending has started to tick up and confidence is a little bit better, which is terrific, but we are also seeing some benefit from other retailers," he said.

Associated Press Retail Writer Ann D'Innocenzio contributed to this story.

tlisi@herald-review.com | (217) 421-6949

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Government-watchdog reporter for the Herald & Review.

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