Black Friday isn't what it once was. The day after Thanksgiving, once considered the champion of shopping days, is no longer the first day of holiday buying or always the biggest. And it's far from the only time to pounce on rock-bottom deals.
Discounts now start earlier. The biggest chains open on Thanksgiving. Shoppers have learned they can count on last-minute price cuts. And online shopping has made the day less relevant.
"Black Friday hasn't faded away, though it is graying," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for The NPD Group, a market research firm.
Last year sales in stores and online fell 11 percent over the Thanksgiving weekend, according to the National Retail Federation.
An analysis by Foursquare that tracks millions of phones showed that more people shopped last year on "Super Saturday," the Saturday before Christmas, than on Black Friday, and that the day after Thanksgiving has become less significant as a percentage of holiday season business.
A survey by Ibotta, a Denver-based cash-back retail mobile app, showed that 65 percent of shoppers believe Black Friday is not as big a deal as it used to be, and nearly half of shoppers expect the best deals to come after Black Friday.
Trina Redd, a registered nurse from Columbia, said she typically waits until the week before Christmas to buy all her holiday gifts at once.
"I've never done Black Friday," said Redd, who was eating lunch with her nearly 2-year-old son Wednesday at The Gallery at Harborplace in downtown Baltimore. She said she skips the shopping day "to avoid crowds."
Too much emphasis is placed on Black Friday, said Dannette Barksdale, a housekeeper at the Hilton Garden Inn in Harbor East who was shopping downtown with her 17-year-old daughter.
"It's overrated," Barksdale said, adding, "I'm still digesting turkey."
"In the past, Black Friday, that was the day. You would wake up early. You would wait in line, [sometimes] in cold temperatures, and the deals were real and that was it," said Ross Steinman, associate professor of psychology at Widener University in Chester, Pa., who has studied consumer behavior. "It's become more difficult to differentiate between the true Black Friday deals, between the events and sales and promotions leading up to Black Friday. It doesn't make sense to wake up at the crack of dawn and wait in line when the deals are not really there."
Unless, he said, it's not all about the deals, as is the case for many who head out with the throngs.
"There's a ritualistic aspect to it," Steinman said. "It's a tradition. There's a nostalgic element to it, and people want that, especially during the holiday season."
Seven in 10 Americans still plan to make holiday purchases over the Thanksgiving weekend, but their spending will be spread over five days, according to a study by the International Council of Shopping Centers. Most who head out to shop over the long weekend — 41 percent — will do so on Black Friday. But 32 percent will shop on Cyber Monday, 30 percent will be out on Saturday or Sunday and 15 percent on Thanksgiving, the ICSC survey showed.
The ICSC also found that 66 percent of shoppers have already started holiday buying, but only 7 percent will be done with it after the Black Friday weekend.
"We are seeing an extended Black Friday… and we're seeing an extended retail calendar," said Jesse Tron, an ICSC spokesman.
Spreading out the season is a good strategy for retailers, Tron said.
Leading up to Black Friday, it has been hard to miss the special offers. Best Buy unveiled early Black Friday deals on tablets and other electronics in mid-November. Amazon proclaimed that Black Friday Deals Week had begun and advertised new deals as often as every five minutes. Shoppers in the Toys R Us rewards program got first crack at 100 doorbuster deals six days early. Most of Wal-Mart's Black Friday deals will be online for the first time this year, with price cuts starting at 12:01 a.m. on Thanksgiving on televisions, video consoles, small appliances and more.
While overall holiday retail sales will likely be up about 3.5 percent over last year, to nearly $630 billion, Black Friday is expected to be weaker than last year, not only because of the changing nature of the day but for economic reasons, said Chris G. Christopher Jr., director of consumer economics for IHS Global Insight.
For one thing, median household income, adjusted for inflation, is still below pre-recession levels, and the struggling bottom half of wage earners tend to shop the day or two after being paid. This year, 21.7 million fewer paychecks will hit consumers' wallets on Black Friday compared with last year's Black Friday, and 33.6 million fewer than in 2013, according to the IHS Payroll Tracker.
Shanika McKoy is still on the fence about whether she'll head out in search of Black Friday deals on the day itself. On Wednesday the hair stylist from West Baltimore was getting a start buying holiday gifts for her children and was loaded down with Downtown Locker Room bags at The Gallery.
McKoy said she sometimes shops on Black Friday, but waits until later in the day to avoid crowds.
"The thing about it is you don't have to go out on that particular day," because good deals can be had on Cyber Monday and other times, she said. "Last year, there were a lot of sales before Thanksgiving."
Toys R Us decided to offer a special promotion to its loyalty club members nearly a week early, "so they don't necessarily have to come out on Black Friday," said Richard Barry, executive vice president, and global chief merchandising officer. "What we're seeing so far is great engagement in those deals."
That said, Toys R Us and other retailers still expect plenty of people to spend the day shopping.
"Black Friday is still a very, very important shopping day, one of the biggest days of the year," Barry said. "It isn't just a day. It's a holiday. People love to chase down those deals."