Back off that bird, buddy: Retailers push Black Friday into Thanksgiving

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Have you heard about Respect the Bird? It's an online movement protesting the trend among big retailers to start their Black Friday sales on Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, in order to get the jump on the competition.

Of course, once one company does it, others will follow. And that's exactly what's happened.

Target has announced big sales beginning Thursday at 9 p.m. Wal-Mart and Toys 'R' Us are starting even earlier, at 8 p.m.

Apparently, any regard they had for America's day of thanks is gone. Why count blessings when one could be counting money?

This "Thanksgiving creep" has set off a backlash, with petitions opposing the intrusion into family time and the ruining of a traditional day off for retail employees, most of whom will not be getting holiday pay in return.

The petition at www.RespecttheBird.com asks people to pledge that they will fully enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday and refrain from shopping until after November 24. It also offers recipes and tips for Thanksgiving festivities.

Another site, Change.org, has petitions telling Target that the Black Thursday trend has gone too far, and that the company should back off breaching the walls of the national holiday. And at SaveThanksgiving.com, a Kansas City, Kan., radio station features a cartoon of a turkey with a hand-held rocket telling the fat guy in the red suit: "December, Claus. This is MY holiday. Now get back to the North Pole and wait your turn!"

What's going on here?

The day after Thanksgiving, or Black Friday, has long been considered the official start of holiday shopping season. Stores offer huge bargains to pull in business, and shoppers descend in droves to take advantage of the sales.

But the biggest shopping day of the year has been starting earlier and earlier. Stores that once opened their doors on Friday at 6 a.m. decided to move it back to midnight, with good results.

The National Retail Federation reported last year that opening late on Thanksgiving night or early Friday morning was a major trend.

A fourth of all Friday shoppers were at the store at midnight, more than double the year before.

A representative from the Mall of America said some of its stores made as much from midnight to 4 a.m. as they did in all of Black Friday the previous year.

Shoppers also were more focused, visiting one or two stores and spending the most at the first place they visited.

"Early openings get a larger share of the customer's wallet," Ellen Davis, vice-president of the NRF, said last year. "Encouraging them with loss leaders to shop when they might not have lets retailers get a leg up over the competition."

Probably for that reason, some of the biggest retailers have concluded that even midnight isn't early enough. So they are invading Thanksgiving Day.

How many consumers will desert their dessert, not to mention family and friends, in the quest for low-low prices? I guess we'll find out.

Kathee Tesija, executive vice president of merchandising for Target, told CNN Money that customers want the earlier opening.

"They look forward to kicking off their holiday shopping with deal-hunting on Thanksgiving night," she said. Doing so, she added, gives them "a more convenient way to create an after-dinner shopping event that the entire family can enjoy."

She may be right about that, but the family might have to eat at noon so they can line up well before the starting whistle. Otherwise, the door busters will be gone -- you know, the ones that have unleashed a couple of life-threatening stampedes -- and most of the other prices will be no lower than they would be for the next week.

Of course it's true that nobody's forced to run out on the turkey in pursuit of bargains. If they don't want to go, they don't have to.

Not so for the stores' employees, who have three choices: work when told, quit or be fired. That's a hell of a Thanksgiving for the American work force.

Target's midnight opening last year prompted more than 200,000 people to sign petitions asking the firm to "save Thanksgiving for its employees, their families and consumers."

The company's answer, and that of other big retailers, is to disrespect the bird even more.

Well, what do we expect? The business of America is business, always has been, always will be. The marketplace will decide how far this goes. Either hordes of shoppers will show up looking for bargains on Thanksgiving Day, or people will stay home. Either way, retailers will act accordingly.

We're not big shoppers in my family anyway, so respecting the bird will be easy. It's the serious bargain hunters who will make or break this trend.

On Nov. 6, America voted at the polls. On Thanksgiving, it will vote at the stores. Or not. If the outcome is what these companies are hoping for, Black Friday could start on Wednesday next year.

sallykalson

Sally Kalson is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (skalson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1610).


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