John Konstantaras, AP Images for Kmart
NEW YORK — Stores are hoping holiday shoppers will gobble their turkey on Thanksgiving afternoon, but save the pumpkin pie for later.
As more than a dozen major retailers from Target to Toys R Us open on Thanksgiving Day, shoppers across the country are expected to get a jump start on holiday shopping. The Thanksgiving openings come despite planned protests across the country from workers' groups that are against employees missing Thanksgiving meals at home.
The holiday openings are a break with tradition. The day after Thanksgiving, called Black Friday, for a decade had been considered the official start to the holiday buying season. It's also typically the biggest shopping day of the year.
But in the past few years, retailers have pushed opening times into Thanksgiving night. They've also pushed up discounting that used to be reserved for Black Friday into early November, which has led retail experts to question whether the Thanksgiving openings will steal some of Black Friday's thunder.
In fact, Thanksgiving openings took a bite out of Black Friday sales last year: Sales on turkey day were $810 million last year, an increase of 55 percent from the previous year as more stores opened on the holiday, according to Chicago research firm ShopperTrak. But sales dropped 1.8 percent to $11.2 billion on Black Friday, though it still was the biggest shopping day last year.
"Black Friday is now Gray Friday," said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, a retail consultancy. "It's been pulled all the way to the beginning of November."
Stores are trying to get shoppers to buy in an economy that's still challenging. While the job and housing markets are improving, that hasn't yet translated into sustained spending increases among most shoppers.
Overall, The National Retail Federation expects retail sales to be up 3.9 percent to $602.1 billion during the last two months of the year. That's higher than last year's 3.5 percent growth, but below the 6 percent pace seen before the recession.
Analysts expect sales to be generated at the expense of profits as retailers will likely have to do more discounting to get people into stores. More than two dozen stores including Kohl's and Wal-Mart have already lowered their profit outlooks for the year.
The Thanksgiving openings are part of retailers' holiday strategy of trying to lure shoppers in early and often during the holiday shopping season. But the stores face challenges in doing that.
Some workers have petitions on change.org to protest against Target and Best Buy. The Retail Action Project, a labor-backed group of retail workers, also is planning to have members visiting customers at stores including Gap and Victoria's Secret in the Manhattan borough of New York City to educate them about the demands on workers.
Wal-Mart has been the biggest target for protests against holiday hours. Most of the company's stores are open 24 hours, but the retailer is starting its sales events at 6 p.m. on Thursday, two hours earlier than last year.
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 around the country on Black Friday.
Brooke Buchanan, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman, said the discounter has received "really good feedback" from employees about working the holiday.
Wal-Mart said workers get additional holiday pay for working on Thanksgiving. Wal-Mart is also serving meals at the stores and is giving employees a 25 percent discount on a single purchase.
But Wal-Mart worker Cindy Murray, 57, shrugs off the perks and said she won't be able to sit down for a Thanksgiving meal with her family until after her nine-hour shift ends at 4 p.m. Murray says the company can't put a price on the holiday.
"If they want to do something for us, they will go back to the old tradition," said Murray, who lives in Hayettsville, Md.
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