Another wrinkle could be the higher prices consumers must pay for food, gasoline and, in storm-ravaged East Coast areas, building supplies, all of which could pull sales from traditional holiday categories, Hoyt said.

Still, retailers expect to fare better than the 10-year average increase of 3.5 percent during November and December, particularly as consumer confidence and home prices have begun to rebound, according to the retail federation.

Another trade group, the International Council of Shopping Centers, found that nearly one in five consumers plans to spend more on holiday gifts this year than last year — the highest rate in eight years. The group's survey, released Wednesday, showed that consumers plan to shop for gift cards, apparel, and toys and games, while they are hoping to be given gift cards, electronic gadgets and electronic media such as CDs, DVDs and e-books.

Consumers want to be able to buy those items, among others, on Thanksgiving, according to NRF research.

Last year, Target opened at midnight on Thanksgiving, but Walmart started at 10 p.m. and for the next hour saw its highest customer traffic of the post-Thanksgiving weekend, said Marquardt, the Walmart spokesperson.

Earlier store openings have sparked some backlash.

Last year, Thanksgiving openings triggered online petitions and protests. This year, the protests are becoming more visible, with an organized group of Walmart employees and former employees planning more than 1,000 strikes, protests or other actions up through and on Black Friday in cities such as Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Dallas, Miami and Chicago to highlight what workers say is retaliation against those involved in a campaign to persuade Walmart to improve pay and working conditions.

Members of Our Walmart, backed by the United Food and Commercial workers, said at least one protest is planned in Maryland, on Monday at the Walmart in Capital Plaza Mall in Prince George's County.

Meanwhile, an online petition on started by Target employee Casey St. Clair, who says Thanksgiving is just one of three days retailer lets workers have off, has attracted more than 228,000 signatures in just over a week. Dozens of Target shareholders have also signed and commented on the petition, which asks the retailer not to open on Thanksgiving Day.

Despite the backlash, the trend toward earlier and earlier openings will likely continue, Chroust said.

"Retailers do it because consumers keep showing up," Chroust said. "Every year they go earlier, and consumers keep showing up at earlier times. Consumers love it because they get a head start on shopping. There's a convenience element. A lot of people would rather shop at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving than at 5 a.m. on Friday morning. Retailers are being responsive to customers."

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