NEW YORK (AP) -- Retailers aren't just ushering the official start of the holiday season with the usual expanded hours and fat discounts on big TVs and toys.
They're offering new ways for shoppers to get deals online and in the store easier and faster in the age of instant gratification.
Walmart introduced a digital map on its mobile app to make it easier for shoppers to find an item's exact location in the store. Kohl's has a new feature on its mobile app that lets customers take photos of products anywhere and find similar items at the department store. And customers, frustrated with long checkout lines, can check out at Walmart and other stores with a salesperson right on the spot.
Shoppers are also facing new free shipping options. Target leapt in front of Walmart and Amazon to offer two-day free shipping for the holidays without any minimum purchases. Online leader Amazon followed, dropping its $25 minimum. Walmart is still sticking with its $35 threshold.
"Retailers are pulling out all the stops to get shoppers earlier with online deals and using online to push shoppers in the store," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry adviser at the NPD Group, a market research group. "I think overall spending will be decent."
Still, Black Friday isn't what it used to be. It has morphed from a single day when people got up early to score door busters into a whole month of deals. Many major stores, including Walmart, Best Buy and Macy's, start their blockbuster deals on Thanksgiving evening, which has consequently thinned out the crowds.
Black Friday is nonetheless expected to be the biggest shopping day of the year, according to ShopperTrak, a technology company. And analysts say Black Friday sales should be even bigger than a year ago. They are expected to hit $23 billion on Friday, up from $21 billion during the same year-ago period, according to MasterCard SpendingPulse, which tracks all forms of payment, including cash.
With the jobless rate at a five-decade low of 3.7 percent and consumer confidence at an 18-year high, analysts project healthy sales increases for November and December. The National Retail Federation, the nation's largest retail trade group, is expecting holiday retail sales in November and December — excluding automobiles, gasoline and restaurants — to increase as much as 4.8 percent over 2017 for a total of $720.89 billion. The sales growth marks a slowdown from last year's 5.3 percent, which was the largest gain since 2010. But the figure is still healthy.
Adobe Analytics, which analyzes visits to retail websites, predicts a 15 percent increase in online sales to $124.1 billion for November and December.
Amazon in the U.S. is expected to outgrow the market and capture up to half of all e-commerce sales by the end of the year, according to Consulting firm Bain & Co.