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Shoppers will barely have time for pie

Black Thursday is becoming the new Black Friday.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nation’s largest retailer, will for the first time launch its holiday sale kickoff at 10 p.m. Thanksgiving Day, joining Toys R Us Inc., Kmart and other chains that have already thrown their doors open while holiday turkeys are still warm.

Other big retailers -- including Target Corp., Best Buy Co., Macy’s Inc. and Kohl’s Corp. -- have decided for the first time to open at midnight.

Chain stores have been advancing their opening times for several years, but analysts say it has reached a tipping point this season, with Thursday night poised to upend Friday morning as the official holiday kickoff.

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“It’s no longer Black Friday, it’s going to be Black Thanksgiving from here on out,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at the NPD Group. “Retailers recognize the importance of being convenient, and one of those conveniences is opening earlier so people don’t have to wait in line at 4 in the morning in the cold.”

The trend in part reflects the tougher environment for brick-and-mortar retailers, who face increased competition from Internet sales that run on a 24-7 basis.

The late-night shopping hours also appeal to coveted younger customers, many of whom prefer to do a midnight shopping run Thanksgiving Day instead of having to leave their warm beds before dawn the day after.

“Young adults are the ones who really come out in force on Thanksgiving Day,” said Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation. “They may have three hours free after dinner, and they want to get some shopping done and be home by midnight.”

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The earlier hours are a big help to Jacob Nieto, a 35-year-old stylist who scours the circulars on Thanksgiving to plan his shopping strategy. The Koreatown resident, who saved more than $1,000 last year on Black Friday, said waking up before dawn to shop is “just torture.”

“If you’re a night owl like I am, staying up late is so much better than getting up early and having to fight the crowds while half-asleep,” Nieto said.

The Christmas season is crucial for retailers, who rake in an estimated 25% to 40% of their annual sales in the last two months of the year. (By some accounts, the day after Thanksgiving is called Black Friday because that’s when retailers go “in the black” for the year -- although that’s not always the case.)

An estimated 81 million people shopped on Black Friday last year, Grannis said. But the number hitting stores on Black Thursday has been rising in recent years, with more than 22 million shoppers venturing out on Turkey Day in 2010, up from 18 million a year earlier, she said. That is likely to climb this year, although Grannis’ group has not yet put out an estimate.

“Our customer basically voted, and she was saying she wanted extended hours,” said John Gorham, senior vice president and director of stores for Macy’s southwest region, including Southern California.

But not everyone is happy. For retail workers, Thanksgiving and Christmas have traditionally been the only two days of guaranteed time off, when shops are closed and employees can enjoy family time.

As family time gives way to commerce, annoyed employees and supporters have taken to Facebook, Twitter and online petitions to vent. Employees at both Best Buy and Target have created online petitions at Change.org urging their companies to open later so workers can “break bread with loved ones.”

Anthony Hardwick, 29, of Omaha started the Target petition, which has gathered about 200,000 signatures.

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Hardwick, who works as a part-time cart attendant at the retailer, said he would have to duck out of Thanksgiving dinner with his fiancee’s family early to catch enough sleep to function when Target opens at midnight.

“Dinner doesn’t even start until 5 or 6 in the evening,” said Hardwick, who also works full time as a copy center supervisor at OfficeMax Inc. “I just knew that to make it through a shift, I’d have to be asleep by 2 o’clock. You miss out on everything entirely.”

Few employees, Hardwick added, would jeopardize their job by playing hooky on Thanksgiving.

Target said hourly employees will be given holiday pay for Thanksgiving duty. Wal-Mart, on the other hand, will not pay its associates extra beyond any normal overtime they might earn, spokeswoman Sarah Spencer said. Neither will Macy’s, Gorham said.

Some retailers are choosing not to join the shuffle. J.C. Penney Co. is opening at 4 a.m. Black Friday, the same as last year.

“It was admittedly a hard decision,” said Bill Gentner, Penney’s senior vice president of marketing, planning and promotions. “But if we opened at midnight, that was cutting into family time for our associates, and we didn’t think that was appropriate.”

After experimenting with Thanksgiving hours last year, Sears decided to reverse course and stick with opening early on Black Friday instead, spokesman Tom Aiello said.

“The feedback from customers was loud and clear: ‘We really like to have Thanksgiving Day as a holiday and not be forced to shop that day in order to get great deals,’ ” he said.

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If shoppers turn out in force on Thanksgiving, Black Thursday will become the new normal and retailers will have to fall in line, predicted Michael Dart, a retail strategist at consulting firm Kurt Salmon and the coauthor of “The New Rules of Retail.”

“Once you let the cat out of the bag and open early, it’s very hard to put it back in,” Dart said.

If that happens, you can count out Vonda Hairlson of Glendale. The 47-year-old bill collector normally views the day after Thanksgiving as a competitive sport (she’s been a contender for the last 15 years). Her entire family heads to the mall hours before it opens, divvies up duties and stakes out different stores armed with shopping lists and coffee.

But she’ll sit this year out. “Do you really want to eat and then have to hustle and bustle to the store right after?” Hairlson said. “That’s really ridiculous.”

shan.li@latimes.com


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