New Orleans — It seems to be “Black Friday” only in name these days as more and more big-box retailers open their doors for holiday sales tonight at the same time some families are still gathered around the dinner table.

While Macy’s Inc. will open its stores at midnight, department-store chain Sears, toy-store chain Toys R Us, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and others are opening on Thanksgiving to grab those who want to shop after their turkey dinner.

“We saw a shift in how customers are shopping last year,” said Ron Boire, Sears chief merchandising officer. “Members told us some of them want to stay up late. Others like the idea of getting out early.”

The official kickoff of the busy holiday shopping season is always a moneymaker: It’s estimated that sales on Black Friday will be up 3.8 percent to $11.4 billion this year.

Sears, Toys R Us and Wal-Mart, which faces possible employee protests about the hours, will open their stores at 8 p.m. Thursday in an effort to get in on that figure. In most cases, the doors will remain open for more than 24 hours.

The changing holiday sales landscape has made it necessary for some retailers to innovate the way they handle their Black Friday crowds.

As a way to stagger the crowds and to try to reduce a run on certain items, Wal-Mart has set aside certain times when different sales will take place. Another idea the global retail giant introduced this year is an hour-long sale at 11 p.m. designed to ensure customers who want wish list gifts, such as Apple iPads, get those items.

“We know it’s frustrating for customers to shop on Black Friday and not get the items they want,” said Duncan Mac Naughton, Wal-Mart’s chief merchandising and marketing officer. “This year, for the first time ever, customers that shop during Wal-Mart’s one-hour event will be guaranteed to have ... the most popular items under their tree.”

Macy’s decision to open at midnight prompted 32 stores at Lakeside Mall to open at the same time, despite the mall not officially opening until 6 a.m. Friday.

Mall marketing director David Colomb said there were only 19 stores that opened at midnight last year. “We’ve seen an increase each year,” he said of the earlier openings.

The trend, he said, makes sense from a store owner’s viewpoint if anchor stores decide to open so early. “Why not have them follow and come in your store?” he said.

Because there will be crowds roaming the mall during all hours of the morning searching for bargains or waiting for store to open, operators have devised a Facebook-based scavenger hunt to keep customers entertained every hour.

While it seems the pendulum seems to be swinging in the direction of uniform Thanksgiving night openings, there are those who ignore the practice.

John Reynolds, manager of Clearview Mall, said that anchor stores Sears and Target opened at midnight last year. They will open Thursday at 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. respectively, but the family-owned mall will be closed all day.

It won’t unlock its doors until 5 a.m. Friday, two hours earlier than in 2010, and even then stores aren’t required to open until 8 a.m.

The crowds — and money — he said, will show up even if the mall doesn’t operate at odd hours that are becoming more and more commonplace this time of year.

“We are opening at 5 a.m., but we don’t feel the need to be open 24-7,” Reynolds said.

The Associated Press

contributed to this report