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Tina Nail, 52, got up at 7 a.m., popped her turkey in the oven and went scouting for buy one, get one free toy deals at the Family Dollar in Dundalk.
Tina Nail, 52, got up at 7 a.m., popped her turkey in the oven and went scouting for buy one, get one free toy deals at the Family Dollar in Dundalk. (Natalie Sherman)

As more than 300 customers waited outside Thursday, a booming order echoed over the intercom inside the Kohl's in Timonium.

"Let's have a quick huddle," manager Brian Stoops told the 70 employees. "We've got 15 minutes to kickoff. This is what it's all about. It's all about today through Dec. 24."

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After the workers gathered at the front of the store, Stoops, wearing a red shirt and black tie with the Grinch on it, preached like a football coach giving a pep talk before a championship game. He told them where the televisions were stored. He encouraged them to make sure no customer left unhappy. The group applauded when learning they would be fed all night and get pancakes, eggs and bacon for breakfast.

Fifteen minutes later, customers raced into the store to snag Black Friday deals like 32-inch televisions for $99, and marked-down cookware and gaming systems.

About 44.8 million people shopped in stores or online on Thanksgiving Day last year, up 27 percent from 2012, as more stores and malls opened their doors.

That's serious money: some $2.58 billion at brick-and-mortar stores alone, representing 11.6 percent of the $22.23 billion in in-person sales during the extended 2013 Thanksgiving weekend, according to ShopperTrak.

After waiting in his car four hours at Kohl's, Robert Dalton snagged a television to take back home to New York City. He said the price was worth the long wait. "I need a new TV for my bedroom," he said. "Mission accomplished."

Like millions of other Americans, Dundalk residents Jim and Tammy Vest could have slept in on Thanksgiving. But with nearly 20 children to shop for this Christmas, they were up at 6 a.m. instead.

"We have a list," said Jim Vest, 43, who said the couple hit Kmart when it opened, returned home to pop in the turkey, then set out again, in search of gifts for the nine children "adopted" by his advanced radiology office and 10 attending his wife's day care.

"The only way to do it is some of the sales," said Jim Vest as he steered a cart full of radio-controlled cars and princess fairy tale castles through the aisles at the Big Lots on Merritt Boulevard. "We could have slept in. We went out."

As long as the demand is there, store management will listen.

"Our customers have asked us to be open, and they've really voted for us to be open by coming in," said Andrew Stein, senior vice president and chief customer officer at Columbus, Ohio-based Big Lots, which has about 27 stores in Maryland and has been open on Thanksgiving Day for more than 20 years.

Kohl's opened at 6 p.m., rather than 8 p.m. as it has done in years past, Stoops said. Many employees started just an hour earlier than opening, as the store was readied for the rush on Wednesday.

Betty Roberts, an eight-year Kohl's employee, said she missed her family's Thanksgiving dinner and will cook a turkey on Sunday instead. She normally works in the back of the store in customer service, but was working a cash register Thursday. "It's exciting to see what the people shop for," she said.

This year, the National Retail Federation predicts that in-store and online holiday season sales will increase 4.1 percent, above the historic average. In-person sales for the holiday season rose 2.7 percent last year, boosted by promotions and discounts, according to ShopperTrak.

But the Thanksgiving Day hours might not be as helpful to boosting the bottom line as some retailers think, according to analysts.

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As consumers start shopping earlier in the season, or go online, staffing stores — and offering deep discounts on goods — on Thanksgiving doesn't necessarily translate to higher profits. The decision is motivated less by consumer demand and more by fear of losing a customer to a competitor, analysts said.

"The retailers in effect are adding higher costs, but actually may be making less money and inconveniencing their families and their team members that much more," said Burt P. Flickinger III, a managing director of the New York-based consumer industry consulting firm Strategic Resource Group. "It's almost Darwinian desperation."

Last year, the number of shoppers in stores and online during the extended Thanksgiving holiday grew just half a percentage point from 2012, to 248.7 million, the National Retail Federation found.

In-person sales followed by ShopperTrak rose 1 percent last year during the long weekend, while online and in-person sales together actually declined by about 2.9 percent, according to a National Retail Federation survey.

"These are the same sales they would have made Friday through Sunday," said Bob Phibbs, CEO of New York-based Retail Doctor. "It's disingenuous to say we're doing this to be where our customers want us to be. … It's not as much choosing to do it as we're afraid of not being included in the party."

Tina Nail, 52, of Dundalk said it was Family Dollar's "buy one, get one free" deal on toys that lured her out of bed Thursday morning. That store had a line of customers waiting when it opened at 8 a.m.

"You can't beat that. A whole shopping cart for less than $100," she said, as she transferred an electronic guitar to the car.

But, Nail said, about 9:30 a.m. she was probably done for the day and would avoid the crowds expected when more stores open later on.

A National Retail Federation survey of shopper plans found that of the roughly 140 million people who said they will or might shop over the weekend, about 18.3 percent said they would do so on Thanksgiving Day, down from 23.5 percent in the 2013 survey.

Shoppers have gotten burned in the past, showing up to find that the promotional deals have sold out, shelves aren't restocked, and help staff are nowhere to be found, Flickinger said.

And then there are the attacks of conscience.

"It works for us, but I think it draws people away from what in my eyes should be a family time," said Jackie Leahy, 55, of Dundalk, who stopped at Kmart and Big Lots in search of stocking stuffers. "I don't agree with them being open during the day."

Even though she was shopping?

"Even though I'm here," she said. "This is the sway of the country toward commercialism. We went outside and played with a ball when we were kids."

Flickinger said the buzz around turkey-fueled expeditions could fade, noting that this year some brands promoted the fact that they would not be open.

But for others, Thanksgiving hours are likely here to stay.

"We've seen consistent positive reaction from members showing up early, before doors open [at 6 a.m. at Kmart stores] to shop Thanksgiving doorbusters," wrote a representative of Kmart, which has kept Thanksgiving hours for 23 years.

The Vests, veterans of the Thanksgiving holiday sales, said they knew the risks of Black Friday shopping. But after having two turkey dinners later in the day, the couple still planned to set out once more.

"I almost got killed several years ago. … I got threatened with a pick," Jim Vest said. But "once you do it year after year, it's hard to stop."

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