Black Friday shopping is quickly creeping into Thanksgiving Day and earlier.
For the first time, chains ranging from Sears to Toys "R" Us to Walmart plan to open nationwide on Thursday. Others are shifting their Friday doorbuster sales earlier into the wee hours of Friday morning. The staff at Old Navy is geared to work 36 hours during a 39-hour period Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday.
The earlier openings are part of aggressive tactics a recovering economy and the Internet brought to a Thanksgiving weekend that retailers use to launch their holiday season.
A few years ago, only Kmart and select drugstores were open on Thanksgiving. Now retailers are using Thanksgiving Day as part of the escalating race to capture doorbuster sale crowds roving from store to store.
"With this economy we want to be ready whenever the customer wants to shop," said Gyniffer Burnett, district manager for Old Navy.
The theme also translates to online shopping. Many retailers will honor Black Friday sale prices online before Friday. But don't be surprised when more tantalizing Black Friday deals pop up at the last minute.
Walmart not only will be open Thanksgiving, it will match rivals' Black Friday prices on most products. The chain's traditional Black Friday toy and apparel deals have been moved up to midnight, while the consumer electronics deals that also draw long lines remain at 5 a.m.
"We'd like customers to be here all night," said Shaun Leggett, the chain's Tampa market manager.
With general merchandise sales forecast to rise a modest 2.3 percent in November and December, retailers are clamoring to set a Yuletide mood sooner and lock up the sale now rather than wait.
After two years of weak holiday seasons, experts forecast the biggest season since 2006. Luxury retailers and department stores are supposed to do better than discount stores as shoppers do less trading down.
"The consumer has a little more spending power this year, but not much confidence yet," said Scott Krugman, spokesman for the National Retail Federation. "So retailers are being more promotional earlier. Sales have been up a bit (for) four consecutive months, so we know there is pent-up demand if the price is right."
For Black Friday veterans, the rules of engagement changed. Once they checked prices at a desktop computer before leaving home. Now more will use smart phones in store aisles to comparison shop while they buy. Others await "flash sale" alerts that stores send them on Twitter or Facebook.
Technology helped drive the shift to sell more on Thanksgiving. In recent years, traffic on online retail sites leaps 15-fold after 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving. More than 90 percent of that traffic is shoppers mapping an attack plan for Black Friday. Traffic has been heavy enough to slow or shut down many sites. Retailers are now trying to tap into that traffic by getting customers to buy online with the allure of Black Friday doorbuster prices on Thanksgiving. Many retailers are also spreading what once was one day's doorbuster selection over three days.
"Doorbuster events really come down to about four hours of intense activity, so we're trying to stretch the events to spread out the crowd both online and in stores," said Chris Hauca, vice president of e-commerce for Acquity, a Chicago firm that advises many retailers including Kohl's and Saks Fifth Avenue.
Many online enhancements are aimed at helping shoppers plan a trip to the stores. More sites are equipped with online tools and apps to compare prices. Savvy retailers are posting all their store prices through an Internet clearinghouse so they pop up in price comparison searches.
Buying a TV set, Hauca learned to check prices often. Best Buy matches rivals' prices, so he used his smart phone search to negotiate a lower price. Then at the register he rechecked and found bestbuy.com cut the price $100 more.
"The cashier gave me the lower price," he said.
Mark Albright can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8252.