Shawn DuBravac, chief economist for the Consumer Electronics Association, said he expected "a much stronger push and presence" by retailers next year as marketing experiments on social media sites such as Twitter and Foursquare become the norm.

Big-box stores weren't going down without a fight, however. Some retailers have agreed to match prices with some of their Internet competitors, and pushed bundled packages of a product and a gift card to ensure return business, DuBravac said.

The retail federation survey showed total spending on gift cards will reach $28.79 billion, with 81.1 percent of shoppers indicating that they will purchase at least one card.

Retailers will get a break this year on two fronts. There are five weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas, one more than in the last couple of years.

Over the last three years, Americans have paid down their debts to the tune of $636 billion, according the federal government. Gasoline, electric and natural gas prices are decreasing.

Consumer confidence is on the rise, and those surveyed this month by the Credit Union National Association and the Consumer Federation of America said they are more willing to open their wallets. Twelve percent of those polled said they expected to spend more, the highest level since 15 percent in 2007; 38 percent said they would spend less.

But at least part of the Black Friday mystique may be a bit of smoke and mirrors.

A study of the 2011 holiday season by the price-tracking company ShopAdvisor showed that Black Friday was no bargain. Of the 252 toys monitored over the 54 days from Nov. 1 through Dec. 24, retailers on the Friday after Thanksgiving had slightly less than half on sale and 24 percent were priced above their initial holiday season mark.

The best day to shop for toys? The company picked Dec. 29, when 17 percent of all the toys on its 2011 watch list were marked down 30 percent from their pre-Black Friday prices.