The holidays have long been an important time for retailers, with most counting on holiday shoppers to help bolster the bottom line.

But online shopping and the expansion of U.S. retailers north of the border are vastly changing the way Canadians shop for the holidays.

Retail industry analyst Doug Stephens says retailers used to keep prices high until Christmas, knowing demand was high and shoppers were willing to pay regular prices to ensure enough gifts were under the tree. Prices didn't fall until Boxing Day, when retailers would finally hold their sales.

But the growth of online shopping and the arrival of U.S.-based chains such as Wal-Mart, Target and now high-end Nordstrom have changed the Canadian retail landscape, he says.

There are a lot more retailers competing for Canadian shoppers' dollars and that means retailers have had to adapt, offering sale prices much earlier in the holiday shopping season.

"Retailers used to sell at a premium all the way up until Christmas Eve and then they would clear everything out after the holidays. Now they're starting to discount much earlier," he told CTV's Canada AM Friday.

Black Friday more accepted

Canadians have now fully embraced the U.S. shopping phenomenon of Black Friday, which has long been when holiday sales in the U.S. began in earnest. About one in five Canadian retailers are planning a dedicated Black Friday sale this year, and a recent survey from Accenture found that 61 per cent of Canadian shoppers are planning to hit the stores that day too.

Just like in the U.S., Black Friday has now morphed into more than just a one-day sale, says Stephens.

"It's not Black Friday anymore; it's Black Week. Amazon has five days of Black Friday sales. Wal-Mart just announced they're going to do four days of Black Friday sales, and retailers are piling on," he said.

The shopping landscape has changed so much in recent years, Black Friday is beginning to overshadow Boxing Day, he said, getting people out to stores earlier.

According to Deloitte's 2014 Holiday Retail Outlook, almost 40 per cent of Canadians intend to do the majority of their holiday shopping before Black Friday, and only 9.4 per cent plan to leave their buying until the very end.

Accenture's 2014 holiday shopping survey found that one-third of Canadian shoppers expect to find the best deals on Black Friday, with an equal number looking forward to Boxing Day. That's a big shift from last year, when the same survey found only 23 per cent of Canadian shoppers expected the best deals on Black Friday.

Online shopping

The Deloitte survey found that Canadians are also embracing online shopping, with respondents planning to do about a third of their shopping online. And most shoppers now expect to be offered free shipping.

"Free shipping is huge," said Stephens. "Apparently it's the second most important consideration for online shoppers next to price."

The Deloitte Retail Outlook forecasts a 2.0 to 2.5 per cent rise in Canadian retail sales this holiday season. Ernst & Young had a similar forecast, expecting holiday retail sales to grow 3.3 per cent this year compared to last year.