Sherrie Koen got pushed around at a Toys "R" Us store on Black Friday a year ago. Someone ran into her with a shopping cart. Someone else grabbed a toy out of her hands.
No way that was going to happen this year.
Instead, bright and early Thursday, Koen was standing outside The Mall in Columbia waiting for Sears to open, the first time it had done so on Thanksgiving Day. "I was very excited that I wasn't going to get trampled," said Koen, a building contractor from Millerstown, Pa., four days after being released from treatment for a back injury that she did not want to exacerbate.
"If there had been a bunch of people out here, I would have left," said Koen, who was visiting relatives in Laurel and was eager to pick up a pair of Sylvania Netbook laptops for her two 4-year-old granddaughters.
As it turned out, there wasn't much of a crowd — nothing like the rowdy hordes who traditionally swarm over the bigger stores on Black Friday. About 15 people waited outside one of Sears' main doors for its 7 a.m. opening, and a half-dozen were at another entrance. Once inside, all was calm, the quiet interrupted only occasionally by someone marveling at a bargain, some of them available only on Thursday.
With retailers facing strong competition from online stores and an economy showing only intermittent signs of growth, stores with big-ticket items are doing everything they can to attract business, even if it means opening on holidays that traditionally have meant closed doors. In addition to Sears' decision to be open for business from 7 a.m. to noon on Thursday in most of its locations, Toys "R" Us said it would open its stores nationwide for 24 hours starting at 10 p.m. Thanksgiving Day, also for the first time.
Jerry Storch, the chief executive at Toys "R" Us, said the company decided on the 10 p.m. opening because reaction was so positive to the stores' midnight opening last year. Before that, stores opened at 5 a.m. on Black Friday. He expects brisk sales of hot toys like Santa-ma-jig, a green-and-red singing doll.
Also on Friday, Kohl's plans to open at 3 a.m., its earliest start ever, while Macy's will unlock its doors an hour later. At several malls owned by General Growth Properties — including Towson Town Center, White Marsh Mall and the Columbia mall — some stores were to open at midnight. Walmart said it would offer doorbuster deals at midnight and then again at 5 a.m.
In addition, some Sports Authority, Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic stores were open Thursday.
A recent survey by the consulting firm Accenture found a "rise in consumer apathy" toward Black Friday, with 53 percent of people predicting that they would skip shopping that day or have not yet decided whether to do so, up from 48 percent last year. Consumer Reports estimated that 102 million people will hit the stores over the Black Friday weekend, about 16 million fewer than last year. A quarter of those said they would shop Friday.
Online, consumers spent about $300 million last year on Thanksgiving, compared with $887 million on Cyber Monday, according to comScore. Akamai Technologies, which tracks traffic to 270 retail sites, reported that traffic peaked at 11 a.m. Thursday and was up about 14 percent from Wednesday.
John Thompson, senior vice president and general manager of Best Buy Inc.'s website, said that this year the company reached out to its frequent online shoppers and gave them early access to deals. "Thanksgiving Day is a day when we are seeing more and more consumers choose online as a place to begin their research and actually transact," he said.
David Friedman, a senior vice president at Sears Holdings Corp., the parent company of Sears and Kmart — the latter has opened its stores on Thanksgiving for 19 years — said in a statement that the decision to open the Sears stores for five hours the day before Black Friday "was based on our customers' response and desire to have an extra day to shop."
The company's aim, Friedman said, is to help customers "start their shopping early or pick up last-minute items needed for their Thanksgiving celebration."
At the Sears store in Columbia, customers seemed more concerned with Christmas presents. Most were content to reflect on potential purchases, weighing pros and cons, without feeling compelled to buy the nearest thing at hand for fear that somone else might, as sometimes happens on Black Friday. Other shoppers, armed with newspaper ads filled with deals, knew exactly what they wanted.
"These are great, great deals," said Donna Christopher, who moved to West Friendship two months ago from New Orleans and was buying shoes and boots for her first Maryland winter. "I don't like all that hustle and bustle — I'm small and they knock me down," she went on, referring to her 5-foot, 1-inch frame. "Today there aren't a lot of shoppers and that's very positive for me."
Monica Cave, a Columbia resident who was at Sears with her mother, Jeannie Winston, visiting from Richmond, Va., was another customer happy upon discovering an $89.99 price for the Sylvania Netbook laptops, normally $20 more.
"You have made a 9-year-old very happy," Cave said, referring to her daughter, Sydnei, the laptop's intended recipient. "Last year these things were $300. It was just ridiculous, but when I saw the ad this morning, I jumped up and put my sweats on. We were cooking and dropped everything to come over here."
Scott Willis, the store's general manager, said he hadn't known what kind of crowd to expect on Thanksgiving morning, but was fairly pleased with the turnout, equaling it to that of a regular Thursday. He was also happy with the response of the staff, about 80 of whom volunteered to fill the shift, some on holiday overtime, others on their usual commissions.
Over in children's clothing, Sisi Cruz, a human-resources director in a humanitarian agency, said she had a turkey in the oven at home but couldn't resist the lure of the sales. "It's Thanksgiving," she said. "Most people are cooking, or driving."
"Or sleeping," chimed in her friend Carmin Collazo.
"Which is what I should be doing," continued Cruz, her arms laden with cologne and shoes for her husband. "But duty calls."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.