Forget Black Friday. This year it's all about Thanksgiving Thursday.
If you've been to any place with a cash register lately, you know retailers are ringing in the holidays earlier than ever. I'm still snacking on Milky Ways from Halloween, but stores want me to buy the Candy Land board game. And tablets. And Christmas stockings.
The trend started a few years ago as companies began experimenting with Thanksgiving hours at brick-and-mortar stores and launching early Black Friday deals online. Consumers responded with cheer. Many were eager to shop off their pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving Thursday and sleep through Black Friday. Two rounds of sales became better than one.
This year, most major retailers will be open on Thanksgiving, creating speculation that Black Friday, once the busiest shopping day of the year, could become obsolete. Macy's led the charge, announcing in mid-October it will open at 8 p.m. Thanksgiving, breaking a 155-year-old tradition. Kmart will open at 6 a.m. and stay open for 41 hours straight. Last year, it opened early on Thanksgiving but closed later in the day.
Some stores are making drastic changes to their hours. JCPenney, a retailer desperate for a strong shopping season, upped its start time a full 10 hours — to 8 p.m. Thanksgiving from 6 a.m. Friday last year. Office Depot, a store you don't necessarily associate with Black Friday, added 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. hours on Thursday and ditched the predawn Black Friday hours, opening instead at 8 a.m.
Mindful that people shop for kids first, Toys "R'' Us moved up its opening time for the fifth year in a row, to 5 p.m. Thanksgiving, three hours earlier than last year's start. Best Buy, a longtime ruler of Black Friday, upped its start time to 6 p.m. Thanksgiving, six hours earlier than last year's midnight opening.
Last year, I stood outside the Toys "R" Us on Tyrone Boulevard with about 300 people waiting for doors to open at 8 p.m. Some had been in line for up to 12 hours, eating their Thanksgiving dinner on the sidewalk or skipping the meal altogether.
A few grumbled about having to spend their holiday waiting on a few toy deals. But most enjoyed it, calling it quality time with family and friends. Plus, after a few hours sitting with old Aunt Bess, they had been itching to get away.
Bah humbug all you want about the commercialization of the holiday, but it seems Thanksgiving Thursday is here to stay. Last year, 28 percent of shoppers were in stores by midnight Black Friday, up from 24 percent in 2011 and just 10 percent in 2010, according to the National Retail Federation.
Retailers say they keep opening earlier because that's what customers want, as voiced through sales. Consumers say they shop whenever they can get the best deals. So if Target has Magic Bullet blenders on sale at 8 p.m. Thanksgiving, by golly, count them in.
This year, stores have even more reason to accelerate the holiday creep. Because Thanksgiving falls late this year — Nov. 28 — there are six fewer shopping days between Turkey Day and Christmas, the shortest holiday season in more than a decade. That, combined with weak consumer confidence, means stores have to be even more aggressive in luring shoppers.
The stakes are high. Holiday shopping is critical for major retailers, representing up to 40 percent of annual sales. One shopping forecast released by Adobe Digital Index last week said the shortened calendar could cost retailers $1.5 billion in sales.
That's a lot of TVs, crock pots and sweaters.
Time will tell how important Thanksgiving Thursday becomes for retailers — and how early they will go. So far, few, if any, stores have backed away from Thanksgiving hours, even amid protests about employees having to work the holiday. Too many people want to deck the halls early.
Susan Thurston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110. Follow @susan_thurston on Twitter.