Consumers have come to expect the deep discounts that define Black Friday, but retailers hope to entice shoppers this year with more choices in how and when they buy.
Responding to what they say is consumer demand, retailers have pushed store openings into Thanksgiving evening as people are finishing their holiday feasts and replaced door buster opening events with waves of timed sales targeting different consumers.
For some of the nation's biggest chains, that means turning Thanksgiving Day into the new "Black Friday," sparking a backlash from some consumers and employees. U.S. consumers are expected to spend $586.1 billion this year, the National Retail Federation predicts, with 147 million people expected to jam stores during the coming weekend, traditionally the kickoff to the holiday shopping season.
Walmart, the nation's largest retailer, will open earlier than ever — 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving night — and try to appeal to different segments of shoppers with sales of family-oriented merchandise for those first in at 8 p.m., discounts on TVs, cameras, tablets and other electronics at 10 p.m. and specials on items such as jewelry, tires and tools starting at 5 a.m. Friday.
"We're giving customers a choice," said Danit Marquardt, a Walmart spokesperson. "We have these events so they can choose when they want to shop, [depending on] their shopping preferences. They can stay up late or shop early."
Other retailers are following Walmart's lead. Sears, Target and Toys "R" Us are also opening on Thanksgiving.
Sears, opening at 8 p.m., has two rounds of door-buster events. Toys "R" Us will open at 8 p.m. and give away goody bags with $30 worth of Crayola, Lego and Disney products to the first 200 people in line. And it's the earliest opening ever for Target, at 9 p.m., with "bonus" door buster specials starting at 4 a.m.
Kohl's is launching early online holiday sales, with free shipping, and has promised to pick up the tab for a winning shopper in each store every day for a month. Even Jos. A. Bank Clothiers Inc., the Baltimore-based men's apparel chain, plans a Thanksgiving night door buster sale, for four hours starting at 10 p.m.
Retailers are recognizing that hard-core bargain hunters who wake before dawn to line up for deals on flat-screen TVs and laptops may be just one slice of the consuming public this time of year, said Kurt Carlson, director of research for Georgetown University's Institute for Consumer Research and an associate professor of marketing. And none can afford to miss potential sales in this make-or-break season, when retailers typically generate as much as 40 percent of their sales and turn a profit.
Traditional Black Friday events offer in-store promotions with limited supplies. But not all shoppers plan to buy gifts. Many are simply taking advantage of sales, Carlson said, while others are "trying to get out of the house and find something to do with their relatives."
"These stores are smart to come at it with a cornucopia approach, throwing different sets of eggs in the basket," he said. "These deals are trying to address consumer needs of saving money, getting a head start on holiday shopping and spending time with relatives. Different segments have those needs, so they're taking Black Friday and turning it into a segmented thing."
Malls, for instance, are often the choice for later and more leisurely Black Friday shoppers. In the Baltimore area, malls such as Towson Town Center, The Mall in Columbia, White Marsh and Mondawmin have earlier-than-usual hours but will remain closed on Thanksgiving.
Black Friday will continue to be important to retailers, but "some of the excitement connected to the day could effectively shift as this strategy of earlier openings seems to be working for retailers," said Roseanne McCauley, vice president of the Americas for Experian FootFall, which analyzes retail trends.
Jenna Reck, a Target spokeswoman, said the mass discounter based its decision to open earlier on Thanksgiving this year on feedback from customers who said they want to shop that night.
"Many prefer to shop following their family gatherings rather than in the very early hours of the morning," Reck said in a email.
But retailers are also responding to the competition, said Casey C. Chroust, executive vice president of retail operations for the Retail Industry Leaders Association.
"Consumers only have so much to spend," Chroust said. "When your direct competitor is opening up before you, it puts pressure on you to mirror those store hours as well. The last thing they want is for [shoppers] to go to the competition and spend it all before you open."
Holiday spending is expected to rise only 4.1 percent, according to the National Retail Federation. That's a slower pace than last year's 5.6 percent gain, dragged down by continued slow job and income growth, persistent unemployment and concerns about the fiscal cliff.
"Consumers don't have a lot of cash," said Scott Hoyt, senior director of consumer economics at Moody's Analytics, which also is predicting weaker sales growth than during the past few holiday seasons. "We are adding jobs, but doing so only at a modest rate, and growth and wages are weak relative to employment growth. We still have limited access to credit and wealth that hasn't fully recovered from the recession."
Another wrinkle could be the higher prices consumers must pay for food, gasoline and, in storm-ravaged East Coast areas, building supplies, all of which could pull sales from traditional holiday categories, Hoyt said.
Still, retailers expect to fare better than the 10-year average increase of 3.5 percent during November and December, particularly as consumer confidence and home prices have begun to rebound, according to the retail federation.
Another trade group, the International Council of Shopping Centers, found that nearly one in five consumers plans to spend more on holiday gifts this year than last year — the highest rate in eight years. The group's survey, released Wednesday, showed that consumers plan to shop for gift cards, apparel, and toys and games, while they are hoping to be given gift cards, electronic gadgets and electronic media such as CDs, DVDs and e-books.
Consumers want to be able to buy those items, among others, on Thanksgiving, according to NRF research.
Last year, Target opened at midnight on Thanksgiving, but Walmart started at 10 p.m. and for the next hour saw its highest customer traffic of the post-Thanksgiving weekend, said Marquardt, the Walmart spokesperson.
Earlier store openings have sparked some backlash.
Last year, Thanksgiving openings triggered online petitions and protests. This year, the protests are becoming more visible, with an organized group of Walmart employees and former employees planning more than 1,000 strikes, protests or other actions up through and on Black Friday in cities such as Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Dallas, Miami and Chicago to highlight what workers say is retaliation against those involved in a campaign to persuade Walmart to improve pay and working conditions.
Members of Our Walmart, backed by the United Food and Commercial workers, said at least one protest is planned in Maryland, on Monday at the Walmart in Capital Plaza Mall in Prince George's County.
Meanwhile, an online petition on Change.org started by Target employee Casey St. Clair, who says Thanksgiving is just one of three days retailer lets workers have off, has attracted more than 228,000 signatures in just over a week. Dozens of Target shareholders have also signed and commented on the petition, which asks the retailer not to open on Thanksgiving Day.
Despite the backlash, the trend toward earlier and earlier openings will likely continue, Chroust said.
"Retailers do it because consumers keep showing up," Chroust said. "Every year they go earlier, and consumers keep showing up at earlier times. Consumers love it because they get a head start on shopping. There's a convenience element. A lot of people would rather shop at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving than at 5 a.m. on Friday morning. Retailers are being responsive to customers."