Although the traditional start to the holiday shopping season is still days away, Morgan Somerville has already mapped out her bargain-hunting strategy.
The student employment manager at Stevenson University will pass up Thanksgiving specials to focus on Black Friday deals for gifts and household items for her new Towson home. On Small Business Saturday, she'll help out at her mother's gift shop. Then on Cyber Monday, she'll watch email and social media for deep discounts from retailers such as Vera Bradley.
In a year marked by weak sales, tepid forecasts — and fewer days between Thanksgiving and Christmas — retailers are facing pressure to lure shoppers such as Somerville in the crucial period that can account for a fifth of a retailer's annual sales.
The taboo that limited shopping on Thanksgiving has been eroded steadily by retailers opening at midnight several years ago and then earlier and earlier. This year Kmart plans to start its holiday deals at 6 a.m., and other national chains will open as early as 4 p.m.
And though Black Friday remains the focus, marketers are carving growing niches for the following Saturday, Monday and Tuesday, extending promotions and discounts for shoppers as retailers and even nonprofits vie for their share of consumer spending. For the growing Small Business Saturday, local retailers are offering more promotions, and some Fells Point restaurants will give discounts to people who shop in the neighborhood. Retailers also will reach out to consumers in new ways, relying more on social media and even texting to promote deals.
"It's a phenomenon that's been building over the last few years, with the advent of growing online business and growth of mobility, and retailers trying to offer a seamless experience," said Renato Scaff, a managing director in the retail practice for consulting firm Accenture. The year is shaping up to be a "slow-growth, hypercompetitive environment where retailers know consumers have a finite wallet they're planning on spending."
Overall holiday retail sales are expected to rise modestly, according to most forecasts — by 2.4 percent according to ShopperTrak — but shoppers are expected to stick to budgets. They'll spread spending over Thanksgiving weekend or even the days before rather than spending more overall.
"Some years there are more or less shopping days, and sometime there are additional shopping Saturdays, but that doesn't make much difference," said John Talbott, associate director of the Center for Education and Research in Retailing at Indiana University. "The season is going to be what it's going to be in terms of economic capacity."
About 37 percent of consumers plan to spend less on holiday shopping compared to last year, a poll by financial services firm Edward Jones shows.
"I am shopping with caution," said Kim Turner, an information technology specialist at the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn who was furloughed in the recent government shutdown and worries it could happen again.
Turner plans to visit family on Thanksgiving, but will be out on Black Friday at Walmart or Best Buy looking for deals on a portable scanner.
This year, 38 percent of consumers plan to shop on Thanksgiving, either in stores or online, according to Accenture. The survey found that interest in Black Friday shopping is at a five-year high, with more than half of consumers planning to shop that day compared with 44 percent three years ago.
Retailers long competed to be the first to open on Black Friday but a few years ago began opening on Thanksgiving night. This year, Michaels will open at 4 p.m. on Thanksgiving; Toys 'R' Us opens at 5 p.m.; Walmart and Best Buy open at 6 p.m.; and Target, Sears, Macy's JCPenney and Kohl's open at 8 p.m. Some malls, such as Arundel Mills, open at midnight. Boscov's department stores will be open from 7 p.m. to midnight on Thanksgiving.
Going shopping on Thanksgiving is starting to appeal to Robin Jackson, a day care provider from Baltimore's Sandtown neighborhood who was shopping at Walmart in Port Covington on Friday, buying Imaginex toys for her 5-year-old grandson. She sees the holiday hours as an alternative to the Black Friday rush.
"I might try to get there before the traffic gets in there," she said of Thanksgiving shopping. Black Friday is "going to be a mess."
The newest twist this year may be the last-minute, pre-Black Friday sales that have popped up. Walmart announced a "pre-Black Friday" that started at 8 a.m. last Friday, promising steep discounts on some toys and electronics such as LeapPad 2 and Xbox One video games. The Disney Store launched its online deals the same day, the first time it did so the weekend before Thanksgiving, and plans to offer in-store and online deals all week starting Monday.
Eric Messercola arrived at Walmart too late Friday morning to find a LeapPad2. The White Marsh resident planned to try another Walmart and, if all else failed, let his wife look for the toy during an all-night shopping spree she plans for Thanksgiving night.
"She gets frustrated with the crowds and the people, but it's worth it for the deals," Messercola said.
The Thanksgiving openings have lured plenty of shoppers but turned others off, sparking a backlash from store workers and consumers who see it as cutting into a traditional American holiday.
Somerville doesn't like to shop at all on Thanksgiving and would stay away "even if they're giving away the store," but otherwise describes herself as a retailer's dream. On Black Friday, she hopes to get an early start in Easton, where she'll be for Thanksgiving.