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Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
A shopper walks past windows decorated for Christmas at The Gateway Friday. The holiday shopping season is already in full swing.

Remember when the Christmas shopping season didn't officially get under way until AFTER Thanksgiving?

Well, those days — like penny candy, a $20 tank of gas, Bruce Willis' hair and President Bush's approval rating — are long gone.

"It seems like we just jump from Halloween right to Christmas anymore," Sandy resident Shirley Sandberg said while walking through the Fashion Place Mall in Murray. "We usually start our Christmas shopping and get into the mood with all the music and everything after Thanksgiving. But this year we changed, but only because they had some good sales at Dillard's and Macy's.

"We had an idea of what we wanted to buy, but usually we're not out shopping for Christmas until after Thanksgiving unless we see something. This is really the first time we've done it before Thanksgiving. We had in mind what we wanted to buy and we just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

"But I know that, having a father who was in the merchandising business forever, I know that's the way they have to work," she said of retail merchants. "It just seems like the trend has changed a lot. But I know they have to do it, and I understand it. It's been that way for a long time with Thanksgiving."

Sandberg is right — the Christmas shopping season does seem to start sooner every year. And, unfortunately, the Thanksgiving holiday often gets lost or overlooked in the shuffle between Halloween and Christmas.

Last month, the nation's biggest retail and discount stores suffered their weakest October sales month in a dozen years. What's worse, economic analysts have forecast possibly the worst seasonal holiday sales in five years — bad news for an industry which relies on the holiday shopping season for nearly half of its annual sales.

With that bleak picture in mind, Wal-Mart started marketing toy sales in late October and has been trying to get shoppers into their stores the past couple of weeks by offering special sales called "secret items," some of which can save customers up to hundreds of dollars on popular electronics purchases.

Those special sales are a way to get shoppers into stores before Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, which has traditionally been set aside as the official start of the Christmas shopping season. Economic experts predict 58 million American shoppers will hit the sales on Black Friday, with some stores opening their doors as early as 5 a.m. that morning.

"It's definitely good for us (to push up the start of the shopping season)," said Andrea Black, assistant manager at the Forever 21 clothing store at The Gateway mall. "We've been selling a lot of gift certificates, and I expect sales to start picking up even more this week.

"But I love Thanksgiving — that's just me personally — so it's kind of sad. I think I heard Christmas music the day after Halloween and I was like, 'OK, that's just sad. I mean, come on.' Poor Thanksgiving has become like this pushed-away holiday."

Other shoppers in Salt Lake City felt much the same way, even though some of them found themselves doing their own shopping a little earlier than usual.

"I usually start my shopping the day after Thanksgiving," said Salt Lake City resident Michelle Struhs, who picked up a Spider-Man action figure off the Wal-Mart shelf for her 4-year-old nephew, Kyle, "but I'm going to California to visit my family the end of November, and I was just looking for some stuff I think might be gone later."

She admitted that, if not for her trip to California, she probably would've waited until after Thanksgiving to begin her Christmas shopping in earnest but was going to be pressed for time between Thanksgiving and her trip.

"Thanksgiving seems to get lost a little bit, and that bothers me," said Struhs, whose mother and sister will be out of town for Turkey Day. "We're not really celebrating Thanksgiving this year, my grandmother and I. I'm making tacos for my uncle, but we're not having the big Thanksgiving dinner, and I'm sad about that.

"Most of my family is in California, and I asked my grandmother about making Thanksgiving dinner, and she just doesn't want that big hassle. I mean, I would love to make it, but I'm taking care of her in her home ... but it's fun to have the leftovers. For Thanksgiving, you spend a week cooking and a half-hour eating. But it's the week after that you get to enjoy all the leftovers. So I'll miss that this year."

Terry Hess of Salt Lake City was also shopping at Wal-Mart last week, but instead of Christmas presents, she was picking up stuffing mix for her Thanksgiving turkey.

"I heard Christmas music on a radio station two weeks before Halloween — I mean, excuse me, that bothers me," she said. "I like Christmas music, but come on, wait until after Thanksgiving. That's when it normally used to start.

"But every year, it seems like it's getting earlier and earlier. Why not just start out in January and do it all year-round?" she asked sarcastically.

"It's so early, and everybody's rushing into it. Nobody wants to take time and just keep it (the way it used to be). There's still plenty of time to shop around. Stores are in too big of a hurry to get their customers," said Hess, who formerly worked for Wal-Mart. "They want to the get their merchandise out before the other, competing stores do. It's a race to see who can beat the other person out.

"We haven't even started planning Thanksgiving yet. That's why I'm picking up stuffing; that stuff (no pun intended) goes fast. Thanksgiving is still important to me, to give thanks that I've got my family around me."

Hess would prefer to keep her holidays in order and celebrate each of them — one at a time.

"I love Christmas," she said. "Our best Christmas was when we had the least under the tree, because we could spend more time together, to be together, instead of worrying about what was under the tree. It was more about being with each other. That's the best way to spend the holiday.

"It's gotten so materialistic; kids want this and that, and they're missing out on the best thing — each other.

"I like to see my grandkids' eyes light up on Christmas day. It's great," Hess said. "They're just making it so much more materialistic nowadays. One gift would be enough, and my gift is being with my husband. And we will definitely enjoy Thanksgiving together."

Despite Wal-Mart's efforts to jump the gun with pre-Thanksgiving sales, Justin Schwartz, co-manager of the Wal-Mart SuperCenter at 350 W. Hope Ave. in Salt Lake City, said sales thus far have been pretty similar to years past. "The day after Thanksgiving is still going to the biggest shopping day of the year," he said. "Right now, we're selling more food for the holidays than we are Christmas gifts."

Some stores are still striving to keep the holidays in their proper sequence.

A sign outside the Nordstrom store at Fashion Place Mall bears a sweet sentiment. It reads, "At Nordstrom, we won't be decking our halls until Friday, November 23. Why? Well, we just like the idea of celebrating one holiday at a time. From our family to yours, Happy Thanksgiving."

But as one Gateway mall shopper lamented, "Before Christmas is over, they'll already have the Valentine's Day stuff out."

Indeed, do you realize what Dec. 26 means? Yep, only 87 more shopping days until Easter.

E-mail: rhollis@desnews.com