Shoppers who can't wait for Black Friday — the post-Thanksgiving sales that kickoff the Christmas shopping season — no longer have to. The New York Times reports that retailers, desperate for shoppers, are moving the event forward this year, trying to lure holiday-minded consumers as early as Halloween weekend. (Watch a local report about an earlier Black Friday.) Here's a brief guide to what it all means:

Who is leading the charge to start Black Friday on Halloween?
Both struggling retailers, like Sears, and thriving ones, like Amazon, are kicking off the holiday season Oct. 29, with Sears proclaiming the pre-Halloween Friday "Black Friday Now." Toys "R" Us is putting its Christmas toy catalog on sale Halloween. While Target eagerly held Black Friday sales as early as July, Walmart and J.C. Penney are showing a little restraint, rolling out their holiday sales in early November.

What's the rush?
Retailers who can get cash-strapped shoppers to their stores first, says Sherif Mityas at consulting firm A.T. Kearney, are less likely to end up with "a lot of inventory the week before Christmas" that they can't move without massive discounting. Meanwhile, shoppers who've paid less than "full price" during the recession want the convenience of a longer sale period, says Barbara Schrantz, who oversees marketing and promotions at Bon-Ton Stores. Safety is also a factor, she says, after a Walmart employee was trampled to death on Black Friday 2008.

So isn't this a win-win?
Not necessarily. For the economy as a whole, there's a "hidden cost to low prices," says Derek Thompson in The Atlantic. The "gamesmanship" forces retailers to start early with discounted prices and continue to cut them until the exercise becomes counter-productive: "Number-of-sales increase, but sales numbers, bottom lines, stay flat, which forces the retailer to cut costs by shifting to part-timers and laying off staffers."

Can this trend continue?
For some observers, the concept of Black Friday is becoming increasingly farcical and confusing. Retailers have hijacked the term Black Friday, says founder Mike Riddle, and some stores now offer "nothing more than their weekly ad rebranded." The retailers dispute that, saying the discounts this year are deeper and more widespread. But retailers could be killing the whole purpose of Black Friday, says Brad Tuttle in Time, if understandably "puzzled" shoppers ask, "If every Friday is Black Friday, how can you tell which one is the 'blackest'?" and stay home.

Sources: New York Times, Time (2), Atlantic