The annual retail arms race is invading Thanksgiving with a vengeance. Instead of a Norman Rockwell tableau of family gathered round the turkey, a more fitting image this year might be Americans rushing out to bag bargains.
On Monday, Wal-Mart, Target and Toys R Us said they would be open longer on Thanksgiving and trot out deals usually reserved for Black Friday, the traditional launch of Christmas-centric consumerism. Others, such as Macy's and Best Buy, had waited until midnight but this year will welcome shoppers much earlier.
Three years ago, that sales strategy was limited to a few struggling chains. But now such Thanksgiving discounting may be the norm for retailers heading into a season that can account for as much as 40% of annual revenue.
It's a sign of how far nervous merchants are willing to go to court tightwad consumers whose confidence has been dampened by a tepid economic and employment climate.
Retailers are "desperate for sales," said Ken Perkins, president of Retail Metrics Inc. He expects most retailers to start opening around noon on Thanksgiving, if not earlier, within the next five years.
But the shift could prove to be a public relations blunder, some say.
Jodie Ferguson, an assistant professor of marketing at Virginia Commonwealth University's business school, said retailers need to tread carefully around consumers who have easy access to social media and won't hesitate to voice their displeasure.
"In the past, brick-and-mortar stores had stayed away from opening during the day," she said. "If retailers engage in a practice that's not common, consumers might deem that action as unfair."
Evangelical pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church has expressed dismay over what he calls "an avalanche" of store openings on Thanksgiving. Warren, the leader of the Lake Forest megachurch, urged Americans in a service last weekend not to patronize such chains on the holiday.
"Can you keep just this one day a year for family?" he said.
Others worried that employees would be stripped from family celebrations and pressured to stock shelves and monitor shoppers. A few voiced concerns that Christmas might be next.
"It's really out of control — we're taking these institutions that are sacred and we're diluting them with this crass commercialization, shopping on a day that's supposed to be about family and giving thanks for everything we've got," said Jon Burk, 52, a Sherman Oaks marketing specialist.
Burk used to wander malls later in the day on Black Friday, but now he just shops online on Cyber Monday.
"It used to be exciting, waiting for holiday shopping," he said. "Now it's just a blur, another day of drudgery. Plus, people have to work on those days, which is kind of sad."
Target, which has already said it would stay open for at least 14 hours on Christmas Eve, said it "works closely with its team members to understand scheduling preferences" and pays holiday workers time and a half.
Wal-Mart said it would pay its Thanksgiving workers — an estimated million associates — holiday wages on top of their normal earnings. The giant discounter also said it would serve free meals during turkey day shifts and offer employees who work that day a 25% discount on a holiday season purchase.
Nordstrom, however, is bucking the trend. The Seattle-based retailer will again be closed on Thanksgiving, though stores will have extended hours in the following days. The company said it would unveil its holiday decorations on Black Friday.
"We just like the idea of celebrating one holiday at a time," spokesman Colin Johnson said.
By offering their door-buster deals on Thanksgiving, store operators say they're just following the crowd.
"Almost everybody to date has moved up at least one hour, if not more," said Duncan Mac Naughton, executive vice president of merchandising and marketing for Walmart U.S., in a conference call Monday. "It's going to be a competitive market."
Wal-Mart is kicking off its deals two hours earlier than last year, with the first round of bargains rolling out at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving, the next at 8 p.m. and yet another at 8 a.m. on Friday. Target said most stores will stay open from 8 p.m. on Thursday for 27 hours straight; last year, the deals began flowing at 9 p..m.
Toys R Us said shoppers can come in for 29 consecutive hours starting at 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving. Old Navy's "unprecedented" 29-hour run will start at 9 a.m. on Thanksgiving, shut down at 4 p.m. and then pick up from 7 p.m. until midnight the next day. Kmart's 41-hour marathon launches at 6 a.m. on Nov. 28.
For much of the past year, retail sales have been dour, battered by volatile weather, shaky consumer confidence, ramifications of the government shutdown and looming costs related to the new federal healthcare law.
And the shortest holiday season since 2002 will only make shopping more nerve-racking for retailers. With only 27 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas — six fewer than last year — stores can expect to lose $1.5 billion in potential sales, according to a report this month from Adobe Digital Index.
Last year, more than 35 million Americans hit up retailers and websites on Thanksgiving, up from 29 million the previous year, according to the National Retail Federation.
"People are shopping earlier and earlier every year," said David Kuntz, an analyst with Standard & Poor's. "I wouldn't be surprised at all if stores are very crowded on Thanksgiving."
Some shoppers justify the spending sprees as a "social and recreational activity," a way to spend time with family out on the town, Kuntz said. Others, accustomed to the 24-hour availability of online merchandise, are increasingly demanding the same of traditional stores, he said.
Many retailers aren't even waiting for Thanksgiving as they try to snatch early holiday shoppers. Kmart aired its first Christmas ad in September. Several merchants unveiled their hot holiday lists before summer was over.
Some analysts are skeptical that Thursday openings will give retailers the sales boost they want.
"It's clearly going to diminish Black Friday's importance and siphon out sales," said Retail Metrics' Perkins. "But just because they're open on Thanksgiving doesn't mean they're drawing in a larger portion of sales — it's just being spread out over several days instead of being highly concentrated on one."