Who needs a turkey when there's Black Thursday

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Last Thanksgiving, an associate professor of business administration at the University of Pittsburgh decided to do a little personal research on the much-hyped holiday shopping deals.

"I couldn't get a single parking spot at Walmart," recalled Vanitha Swaminathan.

That's one of the many reasons that this year more chains and malls are choosing to move their opening times dangerously close to the serving of the turkey and pumpkin pie.

Heck, the cranberry relish might not be done by the time Toys R Us opens at 5 p.m. Thursday. Best Buy starts ringing up TVs at 6 p.m. and then numerous malls and department stores unlock the doors at 8 p.m.

No wonder so many teenagers are in a hurry to get out of the house.

"This was definitely being pushed by the younger generation," said Pam Goodfellow, consumer insights director for Columbus, Ohio-based Prosper Insights and Analytics, on a conference call held recently by the National Retail Federation.

That's different from the days when retailers opened in the wee hours of the morning -- 4 a.m., 5 a.m. and on, said Ms. Goodfellow. Maybe parents who didn't want their teens out in the middle of the night were OK with sending them off to the mall at 10 p.m.

The Black Friday shopping weekend -- a tradition of buying Christmas gifts the day after Thanksgiving and helping retailers finally operate at a profit -- this year brings with it even earlier store openings, more hand-wringing over what that means for Americans' priorities and new evidence that retailers are trying to choreograph deals to match the types of shoppers likely to arrive at different times.

They need to get this right, as recent earnings reports have shown. Walmart, the nation's biggest retailer, only managed to produce a 0.3 percent increase in sales at stores open at least a year in the back-to-school quarter. And the holiday quarter could be even tougher for a number of retailers, in light of the tepid economy.

As Ken Perkins, president of Retail Metrics Inc. in Swampscott, Mass., wrote in a report issued Thursday, "Earnings guidance issued this week has been decidedly cautious and predominantly negative given the highly promotional retailing environment out there coupled with relatively sluggish economic growth."

Whatever a retailer can do to stir things up and then keep the momentum going, the better.

Take Walmart's plan to offer three rounds of specials -- one at 6 p.m. Thursday, another at 8 p.m. and a third round at 8 a.m. Friday. Then there are the "manager's specials" running from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday, not to mention the online deals running through those days.

"Black Friday is our day -- our Super Bowl -- and we're ready to prove once again that no one does it better than Walmart," said Bill Simon, president and CEO of Walmart U.S., in the official mid-November announcement of the retailer's plan.

Rival Kmart has created three separate packages of "doorbusters." The first group will be available between 6 a.m. and 5 p.m. Thursday, the second from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m., and the third from 6 a.m. until noon Friday.

"It could be there are different groups of people shopping on Thursday and Friday," said Ms. Swaminathan. "If you can convince those shoppers that you can get good deals on Black Friday and get them to come out, more power to them."

J.C. Penney is opening its stores at 8 p.m. Thursday, but it will save the return of its Disney snow globe giveaway until 4 a.m. Friday.

The souvenirs had been given out on the morning of Black Friday for more than a decade until last year, when then-CEO Ron Johnson went with a different program, triggering petitions and Facebook pages pleading for the return of the snow globes.

Customers clearly have opinions, not only about what giveaways are offered but over when stores open.

Those indignant over the planned Thanksgiving openings can certainly find retailers who choose not to open on the holiday. Nordstrom and Costco, for example, won't be open. The Mall at Robinson is opening at midnight, rather than move to 8 p.m. Thursday when Monroeville Mall, South Hills Village and Ross Park Mall open.

Friday should bring out the biggest number of shoppers, even if the crowds that day will be spread out over more hours, according to the National Retail Federation.

The trade group in Washington, D.C., predicts 140 million people will shop both online and in stores over the holiday weekend, down from 147 million last year.

A quarter of those, or 33 million, plan to shop on Thanksgiving. By comparison, 69.1 percent, or 97 million, plan to be out Friday.

Prosper Insights noticed the demographics of shoppers evolved last year as the holiday weekend went along. "As you progressed to the weekend, the crowds kind of get older," said Ms. Goodfellow.

Demographic information can go deeper, of course. Port Washington, N.Y.-based consulting firm NPD Group found shoppers planning to hit the stores even before Thanksgiving are more likely to be married mothers who own a home and are more likely to use coupons than Thanksgiving shoppers.

That customer is influenced by ads on TV and researches clothing online before buying in a store, the firm reported, using data from a survey by East Liberty-based CivicScience of about 8,000 adults from September to October.

"Understanding the profile of the American consumer and who will shop when -- before Thanksgiving, during Thanksgiving and after Thanksgiving -- is critical this year," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst, in a release earlier this month. He noted stores have to have "the right products at the right price during the right time."

Maybe that includes giving people a little time to have a Thanksgiving dinner.

Old Navy plans to open most of its stores from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday. Then, it will close the doors long enough to send everyone home for dinner before re-opening many of the locations again at 7 p.m.

That should be just enough time to eat and then sneak out before getting stuck doing the dishes.

Teresa F. Lindeman: tlindeman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2018.

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