The turkey-and-gravy window is getting smaller again.
Retailers are stumbling over one another to announce ever-earlier opening times on Thanksgiving as they race to woo Black Friday shoppers with deep discounts during hours usually reserved for family gatherings.
On Monday, Sears said it would open its doors at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving, joining rivals Macy's and Kohl's, which shoved forward the beginning of their Black Friday specials from last year's 8 p.m. kickoff.
J.C. Penney upped the ante and said Monday that it would open stores at 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving.
The creep into Turkey Day began a few years ago as retailers nervous about a Scrooge-like shopping season inched their Black Friday hours forward.
Observers say the steady drumbeat of holiday commerce into Thanksgiving will continue as long as shoppers are willing to gulp down their pumpkin pie and rush to the malls.
"I don't know why they don't get it over with and stay open all of Thanksgiving," said Ken Perkins, president of Retail Metrics Inc. "It's going to be inevitable within the next two years."
It's a sign of how competitive the holiday season is shaping up to be, despite signs that the economy is picking up steam.
The stock market has been on an upward trajectory, the unemployment rate is ticking down and consumer confidence hit a seven-year high last month, according to an University of Michigan index. The National Retail Federation predicted that Americans would boost their spending 4.1% to $617 billion in the last two months of the year, up from a 3.1% increase in the same period last year.
But retailers — faced with shoppers who are still reluctant to splurge despite improving financial conditions — are in an arms race to win them over as soon as possible, analysts said.
Opening earlier "is clearly siphoning sales out of Black Friday and the weekend in general," Perkins said. "It's really become a battle of attrition among retailers to capture sales as soon as possible. Once budgets are spent, they are spent."
Not everyone is giving into peer pressure. Some retailers — among them, Costco, Nordstrom and Crate & Barrel — are choosing to close for Thanksgiving.
"We just feel our employees work hard, and it's a holiday that typically is when friends and families get together," said Richard Galanti, Costco's chief financial officer. "They deserve the day off."
Many companies eager to win the holidays are rolling out fringe benefits or deals even before Thanksgiving.
Target is offering free shipping on all online orders through Dec. 20 and also extended its price match policy. Wal-Mart rolled out discounts on more than 20,000 products last weekend and began offering free shipping on their list of top 100 gifts.
The Grove and the Americana at Brand are even giving complimentary rides starting Black Friday for big spenders who drop at least $450.
Industry experts say the holiday season will be heavily promotional as retailers try to entice consumers who are increasingly hesitant to brave mall crowds and can opt instead to shop online from the comfort of home.
"Consumers will spend less time shopping for Christmas," said Britt Beemer, founder of America's Research Group. "They have the items in mind they want to get their family" or they just buy gift cards.
The chains may be courting backlash from angry workers or consumers who don't want their turkey feasts interrupted by a mad dash to stores. But don't count on it, analysts say. Employees have organized petitions and boycotts in years past, but Black Friday keeps creeping earlier.
Sears said its stores will use volunteers and seasonal employees "whenever possible." Macy's said it was working to staff Thanksgiving with volunteers who will receive incentive pay, adding that some employees appreciated the chance to work that Thursday last year.
Some experts think that shoppers can be pushed only so far.
"The vast majority of Americans will do Thanksgiving dinner between 1 and 4" p.m., Beemer said. "If you open before 6 p.m., you're definitely going to start encroaching."
"I think 6 p.m. will stay in for some time," he said. "Nobody wants to be the first to say 'I am going to break into your Thanksgiving Day dinner because we are going to open at 4.'"