Black Friday shoppers are hunting for bargains

— -- Nearly 128 million Americans say they will shop Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the start of the holiday shopping season, the National Retail Federation says. That's down slightly from last year.

Despite the tough economic times and plummeting consumer confidence, retailers think shoppers will be lured to spend money because of aggressive cost-cutting and sales.

The NRF thinks that Friday — known as Black Friday because of its reputation for pushing retailers to profitability — will have the biggest promotional discounts ever.

"Shoppers who held off buying a DVD player or winter coat over the last few months will find that prices may literally be too good to pass up," NRF Chief Executive Officer Tracy Mullin says.

This year, consumers are after bargains, bargains, bargains.

One indicator is how shoppers have been searching on the Internet for Black Friday sales and promotions. According to Google, Web searches for the words "Black Friday" are up 41% from last year. Searches for the words "coupons" are up 59%, "free shipping" up 11% and "buy one get one free" up 200%.

"People started shopping earlier this year than in the past five years," says John McAteer, head of Google's retail division. "We were shocked." Thirty-one percent started shopping online before Halloween, Google says.

Retailers started advertising holiday sales online much earlier, too. "We've never seen Black Friday ads start showing up in October. We've never seen a Kmart do 50% off by Nov. 2," he says.

The question is: Will "shopping" online result in "buying?"

Retailers may see more sales transactions this weekend but probably won't make much profit because of the "door-buster" price cutting, says Janet Hoffman, global retail director for Accenture consulting firm. "This weekend, we'll see very crowded malls, but whether that converts to real dollars, we don't know. I'm not confident we'll see real growth."

Lenny Burns of Columbia, Tenn., says he and his ex-wife are "headed to Wal-Mart at 5 a.m. Friday to buy a 42-inch HDTV and Blu-ray DVD player." They go because of the great sales, he says.

But Chuck Ranck of Montoursville, Pa., says, "I stay as far away as possible from all stores on Black Friday!"

He gives presents of cash to his two grown children and two teenage grandchildren. "That way, they can buy exactly what they want, and I don't have to waste my time shopping."