Image: Woman looking at mannequins in boutique, smiling © Michael Hitoshi,Digital Vision,Getty Images

That annual trip to the shopping mall the day after Thanksgiving is a tradition for many families, marking the official start of the holiday season.

But in recent years, the rules of Black Friday shopping have changed dramatically, turning this ritual on its head.

New hours, different types of sales and a bigger online focus allowed retailers to rack up a record $52.4 billion in sales last year, according to the National Retail Federation. However, that spending was spread over the course of the four-day weekend rather than on just Black Friday itself.

Indeed, while the term "Black Friday" was used to denote the point at which retailers begin to turn a profit (or inch out of the red and into the black,) analysts say these days it should probably be called Gray Friday, as it fades into a longer shopping spree with a flurry of separate promotions, Marshal Cohen, the chief industry analyst of consumer research firm NPD Group, points out.

However, analysts say, this day still offers the most dedicated shoppers a crack at a select group of rock-bottom "door-buster" deals that are unrivaled throughout the season.

Here are eight ways Black Friday has changed and what it means for shoppers this holiday season:

It's no leak

More retailers are now giving out their own ads.

Years ago, Black Friday sales ads were leaked from retail and printing company employees. Now marketing executives have started giving them out ahead of time to Black Friday deal sites, news outlets and even social media followers in hopes of building buzz about their sales.

Wal-Mart, for instance, after years of sending threatening cease-and-desist letters to anyone leaking its Black Friday bargains, has in recent years given its ad to CNN and posted the deals early on its Facebook page.

The early exposure, the company realizes, puts it top of mind for consumers researching and planning their purchases ahead of time.

Some retailers are even beginning to advertise on Black Friday sites, in an attempt to get their ads noticed, says Brad Olson, who runs BlackFriday @ Gottadeal.com.

"That never happened five to six years ago," he says.

Less need to camp out as deals shift online

Probably the biggest change in Black Friday has been the steady migration of sales from brick-and-mortar stores to the Web.

While retailers want consumers to buy in stores -- because they tend to buy more there -- they can't afford to alienate online shoppers.

In years past, shoppers had to brave early-morning chills to snag most Black Friday bargains.

Website dealnews.com estimates that 70% of those bargains now can be found online for the same price or less as early as Wednesday of Thanksgiving week."The better deals are likely to sell out quickly," says Olson, "but I think consumers have a better chance to score the best deals online than they've ever had."

So unless you're after one of those half-price washer/dryer combos or a $200 42-inch LCD TV     you could probably stay at home instead of lining up outside the store with your thermos.

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