Amazon says Black Friday starts Saturday

Amazon (AMZN) is kicking off its holiday shopping season on Saturday, launching a series of Black Friday deals in an effort to juice sales in the all-important fourth quarter.

The company said it will offer two main deals a day from Saturday through Dec. 22. It's also offering more than 15,000 "Lightning Deals" and, in a first, will offer early access sales exclusively to members of its Prime subscription shopping service.

Is Saturday a little early to start shopping for gifts? Not to much of America. According to PayPal, this year's holiday shopping season actually began on Sept. 30. The company says it can always tell when the holiday shopping period begins because it sees a big spike in pay transactions. This year's surge hit between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. on Sept. 30.

Analysts are expecting a strong holiday shopping season as the economy continues to recover and consumers grow more confident. The National Retail Federation says it expects retail sales to rise by 4.1 percent over the last two months of the year to nearly $617 billion. That beats last year's growth of 3.1 percent.

Holiday sales make up about 19 percent of the retail industry's annual sales, the federation said. "Retailers could see a welcome boost in holiday shopping, giving some companies the shot in the arm they need after a volatile first half of the year and an uneventful summer," said CEO Matthew Shay in a statement.

Walmart (WMT) is preparing for the increased business by hiring 60,000 temporary workers this year -- 10 percent more than it hired last year. Macy's (M) is upping its seasonal workforce by 4 percent to 86,000.

For Amazon, the competition will be fierce. Walmart is even considering matching Amazon's online prices this year, something it hasn't done in years past. Target (TGT) is offering free shipping on all items on its website through Dec. 20.

There's one more reason Amazon is heading out of the holiday starting gate early: It needs the business. The company disappointed investors last week with its third-quarter results and fourth-quarter forecast. Its loss of 95 cents a share was steeper than the 74 cents analysts expected. Shares took an 8 percent dive that day and have only recently begun to recover.

Amazon said it expected fourth-quarter sales of between $27.3 billion and $30.3 billion, lower than the $30.89 billion Wall Street was seeking.

As the industry fights for shoppers' attention, it's clear the consumer will come out the big winner this holiday. The deals are already starting and could mean serious savings for shoppers willing to do some homework.

  • Kim Peterson

    Kim Peterson is a financial journalist covering business and the economy. She has written for several online and print publications, including MSN Money and The Seattle Times.