First the major retailers got an early jump on Black Friday. Now the rest of the mall is joining the party.
Several area shopping centers are opening their doors at midnight Friday, hours before the traditional pre-dawn start. Officials figured that if the department stores were opening early, so should the food courts, nail salons and everyone else.
"Our goal is to offer convenience to our shoppers,'' said Taylor Clifton, Westfield Citrus Park's director of marketing. "You'll have no idea it's 3 a.m. inside the mall.''
Westfield, which also owns malls in Brandon and Countryside, tested the concept in other markets last holiday season and found that people like to shop overnight. Rather than wake up at 4 a.m., many shoppers preferred to stay up late and walk off Thanksgiving dinner at the mall.
The three Westfield malls will open at midnight, along with Tyrone Square Mall and the Ellenton Premium Outlets. WestShore Plaza, the Shops at Wiregrass and International Plaza will open several hours later, but each has many stores with a midnight or earlier start.
About half of the stores at Tyrone Square experimented with a midnight opening last year and saw great results, said general manager Jeni Wilson.
"It was extremely busy last year and we anticipate even larger crowds this year,'' she said.
Opening at midnight helps from a marketing standpoint, officials said. Malls can promote the 12 a.m. start rather than footnote it with varying store hours. Under terms of most leases, stores must be open mall hours.
The trend began a few years ago as stores pushed up their openings to lengthen the Thanksgiving shopping holiday and, therefore, give consumers more opportunity to spend. Retailers earn up to 40 percent of their annual sales during the Christmas season, a large chunk of it during the long Thanksgiving weekend.
"Retailers started noticing that customers were lining up at 8 p.m. the night before, even though the stores didn't open for a long time,'' said Dip Biswas, an associate professor of marketing the University of South Florida. "A customer standing outside isn't spending a dime. If you give people more time and days to buy, they will spend more.''
Extending hours to Thanksgiving night will likely attract people who have avoided Black Friday because they couldn't get a parking spot or didn't want to fight the crowds, he said. Shoppers who used to come on Friday might head out on Thursday night instead, making room for more shoppers hopeful that crowds won't be as bad.
Up to 147 million people plan to shop Friday, Saturday and Sunday, according to a National Retail Federation study. That's down slightly from the 152 million expected last year, largely because of the big crowds expected on Thursday.
More than ever will set out after Thanksgiving dinner. Last year, 28.7 million shopped online and at stores on Thursday, up from 22.2 million in 2010. Nearly one-quarter of Black Friday shoppers were waiting in line or in the stores by midnight Friday compared to 9.5 percent in 2010 and a mere 3.3 percent in 2009.
Adding hours could recapture some sales lost to online competitors and store websites, which aren't calculated as in-store sales, said Rob Woods, marketing director of BlackFriday.com, which tracks deals. It also might boost sales before news about the looming fiscal cliff on Jan. 1 accelerates, shaking consumer confidence before Christmas.
Success is not guaranteed, he said. Store employees and shoppers who oppose infringing upon family time could create a backlash against early bird stores and malls. Black Friday diehards fueled by the thrill of the pre-dawn hunt could lose interest.
"Black Friday used to be a lot more special when it was distinct from Thanksgiving. It was an experience waiting for the stores to open,'' he said. "The theory is that (stores) are going to make more money, but it has never happened before. I'm not sure if it's going to backfire or not.''
Woods expects consumers will comb ads and websites for deals, then decide whether it's worth it to head out on Thursday.
Regardless, Black Friday as a shopping event is changing.
"I strongly believe that in a few years, there will not be a Black Friday,'' said Biswas, the USF marketing professor. "It will be Black Thursday.''
Susan Thurston can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 225-3110.