Savvy holiday shoppers are stretching out the holiday shopping calendar, delaying gift purchases because they know a bigger discount is just around the corner.

"It's almost like a discounting game of chicken," said Bill Tancer, general manager of global research for Experian Marketing Services, a consumer research and marketing firm. "It's like, 'How long do I wait for prices to drop?' That's the environment we're living in."

Retailers have responded with a string of shopping celebrations to keep customers coming back long after the famed Black Friday sales. That's created what seems to be a never-ending shopping season, with retailers expecting big turnouts well into January.

Retailers really have no choice but to play along. Shoppers, armed with resources like social media and mobile devices to check prices and track sales, are smarter than ever.

"They know they can get the deals when they want them," said Gidi Fisher, founder and chief executive of PoachIt, an online coupon service and price tracker.

Deals aren't just for customers on a budget. Even in the Bay Area, where consumers are expected to spend more freely this season than most of the country, shoppers want deals because they know they can get them.

Retailers "have painted themselves into a bit of a corner," said Tamara Gaffney, principal analyst with Adobe (ADBE) Digital Index. "They have trained shoppers to wait for the best prices."

After the shopping marathon that begins Thanksgiving night, stores will replace Black Friday doorbusters with new deals on Saturday.

Sunday will bring an influx of email promotions to persuade shoppers to come back to their favorite store or website -- the Sunday after Thanksgiving is the fourth-largest day for online shopping, according to research from Experian. The next day, Cyber Monday, is the largest online shopping day, and sales are expected to hit about $2.3 billion, according to a report from Adobe.

But then it's far from over, and retailers will continue blasting deals until the end, trying to attract their share of customers who seem to have no shortage of options this season for discounts.

C. Wonder, a specialty women's fashion retailer with new stores at Santana Row in San Jose and Corte Madera in Marin County, will keep a 30 percent off sale running well past Black Friday.

"There is definitely the customer that loves all the hoopla on Black Friday, and there is the customer that would rather do anything but go near a mall on Black Friday," said Scott Link, vice president of retail for C. Wonder. "We'll do things throughout the month of December to encourage shoppers to come back."

Overstock.com is one of several online retailers that aim to keep customers' attention through daily promotions and flash deals.

It's "a reason to come back every day," said CEO Patrick Byrne. "Most people are trying to do it with brute force. They're using huge advertising budgets. Commercials. Doing the trick of marking up and then discounting."

More consumers are becoming aware of the illusion of Black Friday discounts -- when many big retailers artificially jack up the prices and then mark them down to reflect the profit they want, so it appears shoppers are getting a bargain -- and feel less pressure to hit the stores that day.

In fact, 25 percent of consumers say they find the best deals late in the season, during the final days before Christmas, according to a study by consulting and technology service Accenture.

It's not just the procrastinators and absent-minded husbands who will hit the stores at the last minute. Almost half of the 4,600 consumers who responded to a study by Visa said they will skip the five-day holiday shopping window that started Thursday.

Consumers age 55 and older are sitting out this weekend more than other age groups, meaning retailers will be battling to get baby boomers into their stores come mid-December.

Consumers who usually spend on big-ticket items such as TVs and furniture are more worried about the fragile economic recovery this year, said Tancer, the Experian executive.

"They will wait for the best possible price, and that will extend the holiday shopping season possibly into January," he said.

Even as inventory dwindles, post-Christmas sales for some retailers are just as important as Thanksgiving weekend, as gift selection and timing become less important than the price markdown for consumers.

Consumers in the Accenture survey said discount was the No.1 driver of their purchase decision -- more important than whether the recipient would like it.

Contact Heather Somerville at 510-208-6413. Follow her at Twitter.com/heathersomervil.