NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -
Consumers are clearly in the driver's seat as nervous retailers get set to kick off the "official" start of the holiday shopping season on Friday.
Worries about high gas prices, home heating bills and rising interest rates have made many merchants nervous that shoppers will be tight-fisted with their holiday spending this year.
Still, forecasts for the holiday shopping season aren't all that bad.
The National Retail Federation on Tuesday upped its holiday sales forecast to a 6 percent increase from 5 percent, saying the recent decline in prices at the pump has given retailers more optimism for a better season overall. (Full story).
The holiday shopping season is critical for the nation's retail industry.
Many store chains chalk up more than half their annual sales and profits in November and December alone, hence the term "Black Friday," the day after Thanksgiving that traditionally marks the season when stores start moving into the black.
With all the uncertainty, though, it's not surprising that stores are taking some unusual steps this year in a bid to jump-start holiday sales.
Stores at some malls are opening as early as midnight on Black Friday in a bid to win a bigger chunk of crucial holiday dollars. (Full story).
But even if retailers see a Black Friday sales bonanza, industry analysts caution that it's not always a guarantee of success for the rest of the holiday season. (Full story).
And many retailers feeling especially jittery have started slashing prices much earlier than usual this year. (Full Story)
For its part, Wal-Mart, the nation's biggest retailer, is eager not to repeat last year's blunder when it declined to aggressively discount merchandise, and sales suffered as a result.
Wal-Mart said that this year it will be very aggressive, even offering to match competitors' holiday prices. (Full story)
The Internet will play a bigger role this season, with many more people expected to do their holiday shopping online and e-tailers getting ready for "Cyber Monday." (Full story)
What happens after the last gift is unwrapped? Stores are getting more particular about taking stuff back so don't expect an easy time with gift returns after the holidays. (Full story)
Of course, there are some people affiliated with the Church of Stop Shopping who would rather have you buy nothing at all this season. (Full story).
Then there's the world for retailers after the holidays.
Even if spending holds up well this season, some economists say rising interest rates and the slowdown in the housing market, as well as jitters about jobs, will cause consumers to pull back in 2006. (Full story)
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