NEW YORK – Black Friday got off to its earliest start ever as the nation's shoppers put their turkey down and headed directly to the malls.
Stores typically open in the wee hours of the morning on the day after Thanksgiving that's named Black Friday because that is when they traditionally turn a profit for the year. But Black Friday openings have crept earlier and earlier over the past few years. This year, crowds gathered across the country as stores from Target to Toys R Us opened their doors as early as Thanksgiving evening.
When Macy's flagship Herald Square store in New York opened its doors at midnight on Black Friday, about 11,000 shoppers showed up in lines that wrapped around the massive department store. Joan Riedewald, a private aide for the elderly, and her four children ages six to 18 where among them. By that time they showed up to Macy's, Riedewalde had already spent about $100 at Toys R Us, which opened at 8 p.m., and planned to spend another $500 at Macy's. Her next stop? A nearby Old Navy, which also opened at midnight.
"I only shop for sales," she said.
Retailers were hoping that the earlier openings would draw a group of shoppers who prefer to head to stores after their pumpkin pie rather than go to bed and get up early the next morning. It is unclear how many shoppers would turn out for the midnight openings on Black Friday, but about 17 percent of shoppers said earlier this month that they planned to shop at stores that opened on Thanksgiving, according to an International Council of Shopping Centers-Goldman Sachs survey of 1,000 consumers. Overall, it's estimated that sales on Black Friday will be up 3.8 percent to $11.4 billion this year.
The earlier hours are an effort by stores to make shopping as convenient as possible for Americans, who they fear won't spend because of economic uncertainty. Many shoppers are worried about high unemployment and a package of tax increases and spending cuts known as the "fiscal cliff" that will take effect in January unless Congress passes a budget deal by then. At the same time, Americans have grown more comfortable shopping on websites such as Amazon.com, where they can get cheaper prices and buy from the comfort of their home or office cubicle.
That has put pressure on brick-and-mortar stores, which can make up to 40 percent of their annual revenue during the two-month holiday shopping season, to compete. That's becoming more difficult: the National Retail Federation, an industry trade group, estimates that overall sales in November and December will rise 4.1 percent this year to $586.1 billion, or about flat with last year's growth. But the online part of that is expected to rise 15 percent to $68.4 billion, according to Forrester Research.
As a result, brick-and-mortar retailers are trying everything they can to lure consumers into stores by making shopping as easy as possible. Some stores tested the earlier hours last year, but this year more retailers open their doors late on Thanksgiving or earlier on Black Friday. In addition to expanding their hours, many also are offering free layaways and shipping, matching the cheaper prices of online rivals and updating their mobile shopping apps with more information.
"Every retailer wants to beat everyone else," said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, a research firm based in Charleston, S.C. "Shoppers love it."
Hardcore holiday shoppers took advantage of the earlier hours. "I ate my turkey dinner and came right here," said Rasheed Ali, a 23-year-old student in New York City who bought a 50-inch Westinghouse TV for $349 and a Singer sewing machine for $50 at a Target in New York City that opened at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving. "Then I'm going home and eating more."
There were 11 shoppers in a four-tent encampment outside a Best Buy store near Ann Arbor, Mich., in the afternoon on Thanksgiving. The purpose of their wait? A $179 40-inch Toshiba LCD television is worth missing Thanksgiving dinner at home.
Jackie Berg, 26, of Ann Arbor, arrived first with her stepson and a friend Wednesday afternoon, seeking three of the televisions. The deal makes the TVs $240 less than their normal price, so Berg says that she'll save more than $700.
"We'll miss the actual being there with family, but we'll have the rest of the weekend for that," she said.
Carey Maguire, 33, and her sister Caitlyn Maguire, 21, showed up at Target in East Harlem neighborhood of New York City at 7 p.m. Their goal was to buy several Nooks, which were on sale for $49. But while waiting in line they were also using their iPhone to do some online buying at rival stores.
"If you're going to spend, I want to make it worth it," said Caitlyn Maguire, a college student, who spent a total of $175 on Amazon.com, Best Buy and Radio Shack during her two-hour wait.
While shoppers snagged early deals, some workers were expected to protest the earlier hours. Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, has been one of the biggest targets of protests against holiday hours. Many of Wal-Mart's stores are open 24 hours, but the company offered early bird specials that once were reserved for Black Friday at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving instead.
The issue is part of a broader campaign against the company's treatment of workers that's being waged by a union-backed group called OUR Walmart, which includes former and current workers. The group is staging demonstrations and walkouts at hundreds of stores on Black Friday.
Mary Pat Tifft, a Wal-Mart employee in Kenosha, Wis., who is a member of OUR Walmart, started an online petition on signon.org that has about 34,000 signatures. "This Thanksgiving, while millions of families plan to spend quality time with their loved ones, Wal-Mart associates have been told we will be stocking shelves and preparing sales starting at 8 p.m.," she wrote on the site.
Shortly after midnight, OUR Walmart said workers walked off their jobs in stores in Dallas, Miami and Kenosha, Wis., on Thursday. But a spokeswoman for the group did not immediately give numbers on how many workers participated.
For their part, retailers say they are giving shoppers what they want. Dave Tovar, a Wal-Mart spokesman, said that the discounter learned from shoppers that they want to start shopping right after Thanksgiving dinner. Then, they want to have time to go to bed before they wake up to head back out to the stores.
Still, Tovar said that Wal-Mart works to accommodate its workers' requests for different working hours. "We spent a lot of time talking to them, trying to figure out when would be the best time for our events," he said.