Black Friday Backlash: 'Leave Thanksgiving Alone!'
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Black Friday Backlash: 'Leave Thanksgiving Alone!'

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Millions of shoppers are already gearing up for Black Friday and hoping to score money-saving deals on the biggest shopping day of the year. Eager to boost sales and keep pace with other chains – and, increasingly, with web merchants like Amazon that are available to shoppers 24/7 – retailers have for years opened their doors earlier and earlier.

This year, many have turned Black Friday into Black Thursday by starting their sales at midnight or earlier. Best Buy and Target, for example, will open their doors at midnight this year compared with 5 a.m. last year. Not to be outdone, Walmart, which opened at midnight last year, will let customers in at 10 p.m. on Thursday this year. And Toys “R” Us stores will open at 9 p.m. and stay open until 11 the next night.

But the push into Thursday is also alienating some consumers, who are being increasingly vocal with their complaints about commercial creep cutting into the Thanksgiving holiday. Some retail employees are revolting too, causing public relations problems for their companies. An online petition at started by Target employee Anthony Hardwick of Omaha, Neb., urges the chain to “Save Thanksgiving” and push back the opening of its stores on Black Friday from midnight to 5 a.m. "A midnight opening robs the hourly and in-store salary workers of time off with their families on Thanksgiving Day," the petition reads. "By opening the doors at midnight, Target is requiring team members to be in the store by 11 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. A full holiday with family is not just for the elite of this nation – all Americans should be able to break bread with loved ones and get a good night's rest on Thanksgiving!"

Last year, the number of people who shopped on Thanksgiving Day jumped to 22.3 million, up from 10.3 million in 2005, according to the National Retail Federation. And almost 10 percent of shoppers hit stores at midnight last year, up from 3.3 percent in 2009. “It’s plain to see there is a huge demand for these early-morning holiday sales,” Kathy Grannis, a spokesperson for the retail industry group, wrote in a post Wednesday on the group’s blog. “Being in the business of people-pleasing, retailers this year are happy to oblige with super savings starting as early as 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving night.”

The companies are, of course, also in the business of pleasing their shareholders. Changing store hours, along with better inventory management, is expected to help retailers improve same-store sales by 3.2 percent this November compared with 2010, according to a report released Tuesday by Thomson Reuters analyst Jharonne Martis-Olivo. The National Retail Federation expects as many as 152 million shoppers will be hitting stores this weekend, up from 138 million last year. A survey by the International Council of Shopping Centers and Goldman Sachs found that 34 percent of consumers say they plan to shop on Black Friday, up from 31 percent last year and 26 percent in 2009. And 16 percent of consumers say they plan on taking advantage of stores being open on Thanksgiving Day.

Chart: Holiday 2011 - Blk fri preview 2011

Holiday 2011 - Blk fri preview 2011
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Still, invading the one national holiday that nearly everyone in the country likes to celebrate is not going down smoothly. The Target petition was delivered to the company’s Minneapolis headquarters on Monday with 190,000 signatures, and has since added 8,400 more signatures online. A similar petition aimed at Best Buy has gotten 15,400 signatures. The electronics giant decided to open stores at midnight this year (compared with 5 a.m. last year), with some locations showing free screenings of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 starting at 9 p.m. or earlier. “This year, customers have told us – and our competitors – that they plan to shop on Thanksgiving Day, and earlier than ever on Black Friday. We therefore made the difficult decision to move our opening Black Friday to midnight,” the company said in a statement issued November 17.

The earlier hours could backfire by cutting into profitability in some cases, suggests Michael Hicks, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. “My guess is that what’s going to happen is that they’re going to catch roughly the same number of shoppers, they’re just going to have to pay workers for more hours,” Hicks says. Given those potential issues, Hicks believes retailers will analyze this year’s results closely before deciding whether or not to continue with Thanksgiving Day events. “They’re going to see some pressure not do this in the future, but that said, these are awfully hard things to push back against,” he says. “Once you extend those hours, it’s very difficult to cut them back.”

Not all retailers are joining the rush to open on Thursday, though. Sears, which last year opened on Thursday from 7 a.m. to noon, is switching back to a 4 a.m. Friday opening, saying that customers made clear they prefer to keep Thanksgiving as a holiday. J.C. Penney is also sticking to 4 a.m. Friday. And Seattle-based department store chain Nordstrom is again scoring points with some shoppers by not preparing for Christmas until after Thanksgiving is over. As in years past, the company has posted signs at its stores reading, "We won't be decking our halls until Friday, November 25. Why? Well, we just like the idea of celebrating one holiday at a time. From our family to yours, Happy Thanksgiving." 

Nordstrom’s decision has elicited an outpouring of approval on the company’s Facebook page. One recent post reads: “Thank you for One Holiday at a Time! . . . and allowing your employees to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with their families! Makes me want to shop your store even more!”