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Is Black Friday becoming Black Thursday?

Move over, Walmart. Toys “R” Us just did you one hour better, opening even earlier on Thanksgiving night.

Move over, Walmart. Toys “R” Us just did you one hour better.

The toy superstore became the latest retailer to throw down the holiday shopping gauntlet, announcing that most locations will be opening at 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving night for Black Friday deals on select merchandise. Toys “R” Us has also released its Black Friday ad, and the 9 p.m. deals on toys include a Huffy 3-2-1 convertible tricycle for $49.99, a “Star Wars” flying remote control Millennium Falcon for $24.99, and Razor scooters for $19.99.

Not all of the bargains are for kids, either: In addition to toys, Toys “R” Us is offering a Sylvania 7-inch tablet PC for 74.99, as well as a $50 gift card with the purchase of an Apple iPod Touch. (Toys “R” Us isn’t licensed to offer discounts on the Apple products themselves.)

The 9 p.m. opening means that unless another retailer has something up its sleeve, Toys “R” Us will once again be the earliest of the Black Friday openers (last year it got things started at 10 p.m., the only major retailer to do so).

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The announcement comes a week after Walmart released its own Black Friday 2011 ad, uncharacteristically early, and revealed that select Black Friday deals would be available at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving night.

The “Toys R Us” ad is just the latest in a slew of stores that have posted their Black Friday ads over the past few days, including Kmart, Macy’s, Sears and electronics giant Best Buy. All but Kmart and Sears will be open by midnight after Thanksgiving. Best Buy won’t open until midnight, but will offer vouchers to redeem for select items to customers waiting in line as early as 10 pm.

Why the early hype?

For one, more and more shoppers are venturing out on Thanksgiving: According to the National Retail Federation, 22.3 million people shopped either in stores or online during Thanksgiving Day in 2010, which is nearly double the number of shoppers just five years ago. As the economy has soured and consumer spending has declined, getting an early jump on Black Friday profits has become critical to retailers.

Second, bricks-and-mortar stores are under more pressure than ever to find ways to compete with online vendors. A record 33.6 percent of Thanksgiving weekend customers did their shopping online last year, according to the National Retail Federation. Online spending increased 33 percent from 2009. In-store shopping over the Thanksgiving weekend, by comparison, saw a 6 percent increase from 2009.

Most stores are responding by getting more involved in the online game: Toys “R” Us says it will have most of its 9 p.m. Thanksgiving night deals available online at as well. For its part, Walmart recently introduced a mobile app for the iPad and iPhone, which includes a price comparison feature, an inventory tracker that can determine whether or not a specific product is in stock at a customer’s local store, and a voice-activated shopping list.

Schuyler Velasco is a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor.