Crowds gather outside Macy's department store November 22, 2012 in New York in advance of the midnight November 23 opening to start the stores' 'Black Friday' shopping weekend.
Crowds gather outside Macy's department store November 22, 2012 in New York in advance of the midnight November 23 opening to start the stores' 'Black Friday' shopping weekend. - 

Today is supposed to be the day retailers wait the whole year for; the day consumers line up early to get those Black Friday specials. But sales started early this year, and the National Retail Federation expects today's turnout will actually be lower than last year's.

So what's it like out on the streets in big shopping areas?

"It's a little sleepy, I have to say," says Marketplace's Scott Tong reporting from the Georgetown suburb of Washington, D.C. Some of the people he spoke to on the streets were a little disappointed with the discounts being offered.

"I think it's definitely overrated," said Loubaba Men from Lexington, Kentucky. "I got one shirt that was marked down from $50 to $30. And actually, I got a pair of pants retail -- not marked down at all."

Part of the problem could be that so many people were able to get the deals earlier this week.

"There's some suggestion that Black Friday isn't what it used to be," Tong said. "You can lock in the prices beforehand; you can shop online. A lot of the deals online are the same as what you can get at the retail stores."

He adds that there are studies out there that show that if you buy certain items, the price you get today isn't necessarily the best price of the year.

But Wall Street -- and American businesses alike -- are still keeping a close watch on the sales numbers today, and just how much American consumers are spending.

How important is this day for retailers?

"It's probably 10-15 percent of the total sales they're going to do for the holiday season," says Chris Low, chief economist at FTN financial. "So that's less important than it's been in prior years, but it's still important enough that no one can afford not to pull out all the stops."

Part of the reason it won't be as big this year, Low says, has to do with the ongoing tension between brick-and-mortar stores and online retailers. The traditional stores, losing the battle, have had to get more and more creative with deals -- and that means opening themselves up to "Black Wednesday" or "Black Thursday."

"Ultimately for consumers," Low adds, "what it means is more options, and less need to get in line on Friday morning."

At the same time, consumers don't seem to be limiting their spending out of fear of the fiscal cliff -- but that could still change.

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Follow Scott Tong at @tongscott