Once known for doorbuster sales at daybreak, Black Friday this year morphs into even more of an all-nighter for retailers and roving mobs of bargain hunters. Since Prime Outlets at Ellenton started opening at midnight on Thanksgiving four years ago, store-opening creep has shifted further into the wee hours as retailers turn to sharply temporary discounts to coax recession-weary shoppers out of their cocoons.
This Friday, Sears and JCPenney will throw their doors open to deal hunters at 4 a.m. Best Buy, Target and Macy's will wait until 5 a.m.
Walmart discount stores — the ones not already open around-the-clock — will open at midnight for the first time, even though doorbuster deal prices won't kick in until 5 a.m. Most malls and Kmart will open at 6 a.m.
Meantime, Disney Stores and Toys "R" Us pushed early morning openings back to midnight. And Toys "R" Us will stage twin doorbuster events with 70 heavy-demand toys at midnight and 50 different ones at 5 a.m.
"It's about being more convenient when the customer is out there," said Toys "R" Us spokesman Bob Friedland, promising hard-to-find Zhu Zhu hamsters will be available at both times.
Because many shoppers use Black Friday pricing to bag all their family's holiday toys in one predawn stop, it's also about being the first toy store to open. Retailers call all this "creating excitement" to get people shopping, and this time they need all the hoopla they can get.
At Ellenton, which drew 40,000 shoppers between midnight and 8 a.m. last Black Friday, marketing director Sara Ozgun advised how to be one of the first 500 shoppers who show up in pajamas and slippers to win a goody bag of coupons, a Jockey nightshirt and one of five randomly placed $500 gift cards.
"Last year you had to be here by 10 p.m. Thanksgiving Day," she said. "After that, crowds come in waves. By about 4 a.m., we get a big lull when most move on to the big-box stores, then go to the malls."
Consumer spending is two-thirds of the U.S. gross domestic product, the most commonly accepted measure of the economy. So how much consumers loosen up on discretionary spending this holiday season is the next big harbinger of how the economy is recovering.
Last year's retail holiday debacle included a 3.4 percent sales decline. Consumers may spend slightly more this year, but high unemployment will keep spending down, forecasters say.
Some forecasters think the favorable comparison to last year will make for rosier results that propel economic growth.
"I see a sales gain as high as 2.5 percent," said Richard Hastings, an economist with Global Hunter Securities who monitors retail chains as a credit risk.
"Given the hefty decline a year ago and sales trends we've seen this year, general merchandise sales will likely get a lift of 2 to 4 percent," said Mike Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers.
For the ritual start to their busiest shopping season of the year, local malls are decked out in holiday finery. They plan a series of promotions peaking at what promises to be the biggest sales day of the year: the Saturday before Christmas. Malls filled empty spaces with temporary shops like Hickory Farms and See's Candies. Westfield Countryside mall even timed the completion of its $12 million renovation and signed up as new home to the Festival of Trees, a fundraiser for the Upper Pinellas Association for Retarded Citizens that displays and raffles off 100 professionally decorated trees.
For shoppers, Black Friday is often a family event — sometimes a team sport. Many multi-task, equipped with cell phones to coordinate in the field, smart phones to comparison-shop online inside stores and text message deal alerts dispatched from stores all night.
While many map strategy on the kitchen table from a stack of Thanksgiving Day newspaper ads, others started weeks ago at Web sites that post Black Friday ads.
Many stores volunteer ads. Most fiercely keep them under wraps for competitive reasons and in fear they can be easily misread because prices vary market to market. So Web publishers swipe ads from warehouses where the inserts were printed as much as two months ago. Some big stores have been confirming their doorbuster deals in dribs and drabs via news releases, Facebook entries and Twitter messages for weeks. But they hold back the most compelling offers until Thanksgiving Day to maximize spontaneous reaction.
"What's new is the stores are starting to embrace us by confirming their leaked ads," said Dan de Grandpre, editor of dealnews.net, which labels leaked Black Friday ads as rumor or fact, depending on confirmation. "Walmart confirmed many ads this year. That's never happened before."
Mark Albright can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8252.