As retailers try to draw in shoppers, an unprecedented number of stores are opening earlier than ever on Black Friday this year.
Target, Best Buy and other big retailers will greet shoppers at 12 a.m. Friday. Target's planned Black Friday opening has brought a lot of heat on the retailer.
Nearly 200,000 people signed an online petition asking the Target to delay the Black Friday opening until 5 a.m. On Monday, Target shopping bags filled with printouts of the names of the people who signed the electronic petition were brought to the lobby of the retailer's Minneapolis headquarters.
Petitioner Patty McDonald visited to show her displeasure with Target's Black Friday opening.
"I'll go to the mom-and-pop stores, stores that open at 8 a.m.," McDonald said. "I won't be shopping at Target at all, which is too bad because I always shop at Target."
The retailer's response said the petitioners' sentiments were appreciated but Target will open its 1,750 stores as planned.
Other retailers plan to open as early or earlier than Target. But they haven't received as much attention — or grief — for their holiday hours.
Kmart has opened on Thanksgiving for 20 years and this year will throw open its doors at 6 a.m. Most Walmart stores will be open all day on Thanksgiving, with Black Friday specials starting at 10 p.m. About 1,000 Old Navy, Gap and Banana Republic stores will also open.
"Clearly the trend is opening up earlier and earlier," said Michael Keara, a retail analyst with Morningstar. He sees the Black Friday hours and steep price cuts as signs retailers are desperate for sales.
"All these retailers are just going to bludgeon themselves on price to bring people to the doors," he said. "Real incomes are down and that puts a lot of pressure on discretionary spends. So, these retailers are falling all over themselves to get anybody they can to come to the door."
Retailers say consumers want earlier hours, too. Otherwise, they wouldn't jam stores when they open.
"Really, what's driving this is consumer demand. They're not going to open if people aren't going to come," said Brian Steinhoff, president of the Minnesota Retailers Association.
A more intense fight for shoppers' dollars is shaping up this year in a tough job market and uncertain economy. The National Retail Federation forecasts overall retail sales will rise 2.8 percent this season, well below last year's 5.2 percent.
Retailers hope Black Friday specials draw consumers who want to wrap up their holiday shopping quickly, said Mark Bergen, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota.
"What they want to do is bring you in the store because you found the perfect gift or perfect deal for a certain somebody," he said. "And while you're there, if you can check four more people off that list, they've won."
Retailers have to be careful about extending hours too far and treading on holiday traditions that consumers feel are sacrosanct, Bergen said, adding that stores could be perceived as too Scooge-like or mercenary.
"There are social stigma that might be attached to it," he said.
Decades ago, blue laws in many states banned stores from opening on Sundays and holidays. Minnesota still prohibits liquor sales on Sunday, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. It's a ban many liquor store owners support because they don't want to work on Sunday.
States have been ditching blue laws, hoping to collect more sales tax revenue, said Auburn University economist David Laband. However, they generally didn't, unless adjacent states kept their retailers from opening.
"Ultimately, there's not going to be any more bought in the aggregate," Laband said.
As more retailers creep closer to opening for Thanksgiving day, at least one big chain has concluded it isn't such a good idea. Last year, Sears was open from 7 a.m. to noon. This year, Sears stores will be closed, and instead will open at 4 a.m. Friday. Customers made it clear they wanted Thanksgiving to remain a holiday, Sears spokesman Tom Aiello said.
"They love the great deals," he said. "But they didn't really like the idea of having to come out on Thanksgiving Day to take advantage of them."
Even so, Target will test limited holiday hours in the Denver market, only for last-minute grocery needs. Stores will be open from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday.