The annual retail arms race is invading Thanksgiving with a vengeance. Instead of a Norman Rockwell tableau of family gathered round the turkey, a more fitting image this year might be Americans rushing out to bag bargains.
On Monday, Wal-Mart, Target and Toys R Us said they would be open longer on Thanksgiving and trot out deals usually reserved for Black Friday, the traditional launch of Christmas-centric consumerism. Others, such as Macy's and Best Buy, had waited until midnight but this year will welcome shoppers much earlier.
Three years ago, that sales strategy was limited to a few struggling chains. But now such Thanksgiving discounting may be the norm for retailers heading into a season that can account for as much as 40% of annual revenue.
It's a sign of how far nervous merchants are willing to go to court tightwad consumers whose confidence has been dampened by a tepid economic and employment climate.
Retailers are "desperate for sales," said Ken Perkins, president of Retail Metrics Inc. He expects most retailers to start opening around noon on Thanksgiving, if not earlier, within the next five years.
But the shift could prove to be a public relations blunder, some say.
Jodie Ferguson, an assistant professor of marketing at Virginia Commonwealth University's business school, said retailers need to tread carefully around consumers who have easy access to social media and won't hesitate to voice their displeasure.
"In the past, brick-and-mortar stores had stayed away from opening during the day," she said. "If retailers engage in a practice that's not common, consumers might deem that action as unfair."
Evangelical pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church has expressed dismay over what he calls "an avalanche" of store openings on Thanksgiving. Warren, the leader of the Lake Forest megachurch, urged Americans in a service last weekend not to patronize such chains on the holiday.
"Can you keep just this one day a year for family?" he said.
Others worried that employees would be stripped from family celebrations and pressured to stock shelves and monitor shoppers. A few voiced concerns that Christmas might be next.
"It's really out of control — we're taking these institutions that are sacred and we're diluting them with this crass commercialization, shopping on a day that's supposed to be about family and giving thanks for everything we've got," said Jon Burk, 52, a Sherman Oaks marketing specialist.
Burk used to wander malls later in the day on Black Friday, but now he just shops online on Cyber Monday.
"It used to be exciting, waiting for holiday shopping," he said. "Now it's just a blur, another day of drudgery. Plus, people have to work on those days, which is kind of sad."
Target, which has already said it would stay open for at least 14 hours on Christmas Eve, said it "works closely with its team members to understand scheduling preferences" and pays holiday workers time and a half.
Wal-Mart said it would pay its Thanksgiving workers — an estimated million associates — holiday wages on top of their normal earnings. The giant discounter also said it would serve free meals during turkey day shifts and offer employees who work that day a 25% discount on a holiday season purchase.
Nordstrom, however, is bucking the trend. The Seattle-based retailer will again be closed on Thanksgiving, though stores will have extended hours in the following days. The company said it would unveil its holiday decorations on Black Friday.
"We just like the idea of celebrating one holiday at a time," spokesman Colin Johnson said.
By offering their door-buster deals on Thanksgiving, store operators say they're just following the crowd.
"Almost everybody to date has moved up at least one hour, if not more," said Duncan Mac Naughton, executive vice president of merchandising and marketing for Walmart U.S., in a conference call Monday. "It's going to be a competitive market."