Every Thanksgiving Lisa Harrell, her sisters Amy, Emma and their mother Melissa set their alarm clocks for 2 a.m. the following morning. It's a post Turkey-Day tradition that includes waking up before dawn, making a Thermos full of coffee and standing in a line that twists around two stores just to get a jump on bargain-bottom Black Friday deals.

Hungry for customers and haunted by sluggish sales of holiday past, stores are pulling out all the stops to pull in spenders. The range of retailers offering early bird specials this year is wider. Sales are starting earlier and lasting longer, with some chains holding Black Friday Week and even Black Friday Month promotions.

For the first time in its 124-year history, Sears Holding Corp. (NASDAQ:SHLD), which operates Kmart and Sears, Roebuck & Co. stores, will open its doors on Thanksgiving.

"We'd go,” Harrell said, “but it would depend how good the prices are.”

Last year, tepid sales projections forced several national chains, including Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT), Old Navy, Toys R Us and Radio Shack to court customers by opening early. The trend is continuing this year. Kohl’s is moving up its opening from 4 a.m. Friday morning to 3 a.m., and Macy’s will open at 4 a.m., an hour earlier than last year.

Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, is the unofficial start of the holiday shopping season. This year, the National Retail Federation expects a 2.3% increase in spending to $447.1 billion. The projection falls short of the 10-year historic high of 2.5%, but that sales rate would still be the best showing in four years.

Retailers are banking on it.

Newly released figures show U.S. retail sales surged in October, riding above expectations on solid spending for a broad array of merchandise going into the holiday shopping season.

Inventories at U.S. businesses in September rose above expectations, a sign of confidence among companies in the economic recovery as the holiday shopping season nears. Retail sales rose 1.2% last month, the Commerce Department said. The increase marked the largest since March and the fourth in a row. September sales rose 0.7%, revised up from a previously estimated 0.6% increase.

The improvements are an important indicator of the economy’s recovery. Consumer spending makes up most of the gross domestic product, which is the broad measure of U.S. economic activity. U.S. consumers also gained confidence in November for the first time in three months, according to a Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan survey.

So what does this mean for shoppers? Maybe a lot. Many stores are trying to entice consumers by throwing in extras like free shipping and gift-wrapping.

Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, told a group of investors in September it would do whatever necessary to be the most competitive on prices during the year-end holiday shopping season. The Bentonville, Arkansas-based company earlier this month leaked Black Friday circulars, which made their way to many media outlets. Among the highlights: the company's free shipping offer, which applies to nearly 60,000 products including jewelry, video games and furniture.

The nation's second largest discount retailer, Target Corp. (NYSE:TGT), is also offering free shipping on over 800,000 items on online orders with at least $50 spent on eligible products.

Target's Black Friday deals were also leaked to the media and bloggers. One of the company’s biggest doorbuster deals includes Chefmate products such as a two-slice toaster, sandwich maker and hand mixer for $3 each. It’s the same deal the company offered last year. In total, Target will have 25 early morning Black Friday bargains this year, 11 more than in 2009.

Best Buy Co. (NYSE:BBY) slashed a number of its electronic items ahead of Black Friday, including a 40-inch LCD HDTV for $399.99.

“I have three sons and one job,” joked Melvin Potter outside a Best Buy in Brooklyn, NY. “I’m trying to buy the cheapest thing in here.”