"Employee morale is something [retailers] have to weigh in making decisions," Chroust said. "Many retailers made the decision that the potential for extra sales is worth it. It's such a tough environment out there, it's something retailers feel they need to do."

He says retailers have received some good news recently, with year-over-year increases in October same-store sales. But a lack of improvement nationwide in employment and the housing market, as well as tight credit markets, have kept expectations low for the holiday season.

Still, because retailers have focused on keeping expenses in check, they should be able to offer attractive deals for shoppers, Chroust said. "We are going to see another year of aggressive promotions and discounts."

And shoppers are seeking bargains more than anything else, according to the latest surveys by the International Council of Shopping Centers.

At Best Buy in Towson last week, some of the smaller "door-buster" items — computers, laptops and small TVs — were stored on shelves out of reach of customers. Five more truckloads of goods were still on the way, among them a limited quantity of deeply discounted Sharp 42-inch LCD high-definition TVs and Toshiba Smart Blu-ray Players.

Like Best Buy, most chains are counting on the deep discounts, early-bird specials and prize giveaways to drive Black Friday traffic.

For Sports Authority, which will open at 5 a.m. Friday, the must-have item will be footballs, basketballs and any other kind of ball — they're all half-off for the day as part of a campaign to promote an active lifestyle.

At Westfield Annapolis mall in Annapolis , which will open at midnight on Black Friday for the first time, the first 500 shoppers will get $10 gift cards, and Secret Santas will roam the corridors handing out prizes. Mall stores opening at midnight include Aerie, Eddie Bauer and Children's Place, all offering discounts of 30 percent to 40 percent.

Local Best Buy store managers learned earlier this month about the electronics and appliance chain's plan to open at midnight for the first time. The chain hopes to create a signature Thanksgiving event, with free 9 p.m. screenings of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II" in the parking lot of 100 stores. (In Maryland, the movie will be shown only at the Wheaton store.)

At the Towson Best Buy, employees will hand out tickets for door-buster specials — one per person, per item — at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving. No one knows how many shoppers will spend part of Thanksgiving camped out at the store to compete for the coveted items, said Matt Dawson, the store's customer experience manager.

"It's kind of hard for us to gauge this year," he said. "This is a new venture for us."

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

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