Retailers pushing back the clock to launch the annual holiday shopping season

Thanksgiving Day, for decades a time devoted to family, feasting and relaxing before the hectic Christmas rush, is increasingly becoming a shopping run-up to retailers’ all-important Black Friday.

Early Friday store openings have evolved into evening shopping sprees on Thanksgiving Thursday.

This year, major retailers such as Macy’s, Target, Kohl’s and J.C. Penney are opening at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. Sacramento’s Arden Fair mall responded to its anchor tenants’ moves by announcing that select stores in the mall would likewise open at 8 p.m. – the earliest holiday shopping opening in the mall’s history.

Sunrise Mall in Citrus Heights and Roseville’s Westfield Galleria are following a similar pattern, with anchor stores opening at 8 p.m. Thanksgiving Day, other mall stores exercising the option to open at that time and all mall stores open from midnight to 10 p.m. on Nov. 29.

Retail giant Wal-Mart upped the ante last week by announcing a two-tiered sales launch on Thanksgiving Day, the first one starting at 6 p.m. Early arrivals will see slashed prices on Apple iPad minis and 60-inch Vizio flat-screen TVs. “Black Friday is ... our Super Bowl,” said Bill Simon, company president and CEO.

Perhaps the most extreme examples of what is sometimes called “holiday creep”: Kmart stores will open at 6 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day; more than 900 Old Navy stores will be open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, and more than 700 of them will reopen at 7 p.m. to initiate another 29 nonstop hours of shopping.

The ever-earlier shopping frenzy is a source of dismay for traditionalists who view Thanksgiving more in terms of Norman Rockwell’s famous 1943 “Freedom from Want” painting, showing a family gathered at a dinner table and welcoming the arrival of a perfectly cooked turkey. They ask: Isn’t the pace of life hectic enough without cutting into a day established for humble gratitude and quiet reflection?

“Thanksgiving is meant to be a time to give thanks, to enjoy family that you might see only once a year,” said Roseville resident Becky Hunt, doing some early Christmas shopping at Westfield Galleria. “I don’t like being pressured to shop on Thanksgiving, and I won’t. There’s plenty of time to shop and find bargains before Christmas.”

And while seasonal store employees swell work-force ranks – about 81,600 workers held jobs at retail stores in the four-county Sacramento region during the last holiday season, according to the state Employment Development Department – critics also complain that retail workers are being forced to forgo their Thanksgiving holiday to sell televisions and toys.

Some retailers are reaching out to workers with special incentives. Wal-Mart is offering holiday pay, a 25 percent purchase discount and a free traditional Thanksgiving dinner for employees working on Thanksgiving Day. Macy’s said it will pay time-and-a-half.

Retail experts and economists say we have only ourselves to blame for the forward creep of holiday shopping.

The Washington, D.C.-based National Retail Federation said more than 35 million Americans headed to stores on Thanksgiving Day last year.

“Retailers are opening earlier because it works,” said Peter Schaub, a marketing and branding expert in New York. “If shoppers weren’t lining up at the doors on these early-opening dates, retailers would drop it like a hot potato. But the way people are filling the stores and looking to buy, I’m betting that (Thanksgiving Day) is going to be an all-day shopping day for most within a few years.”

“I’ve been in the business for 30 years, and there have been a lot of changes in the way people look at Thanksgiving,” said Christi Woodards, general manager of Sunrise Mall. “A lot of people are making new traditions and trying to get their shopping done early, and we’re trying to be there for them.”

Retail federation spokeswoman Kathy Grannis noted that “many retailers have learned through direct feedback from Thanksgiving shoppers that they prefer to shop at night than to set the alarm and brave the cold on the morning of Black Friday ... Millennials seem especially interested in hitting the stores a day early: 36 percent of those between 18 and 34 shopped on Thanksgiving Day (last year), the highest of any age group.

“What started as a test-run for a few companies in 2010 has now turned into another shopping tradition for millions of Americans.”

A ‘shared adventure’

A random sampling of Sacramento-area shoppers found mostly strong support of a Thanksgiving Day holiday shopping kickoff.

“It’s fun, like a shared adventure for me and my friends. We love it. We’ll be hitting the stores on Thanksgiving night,” said Sacramentan Lucy Welch, strolling through Arden Fair.

“I have friends who think I’m terrible for shopping on Thanksgiving, but with the great deals, why would you just sit around doing nothing after the Thanksgiving meal is done? Clean up the dishes and go out and save some money. That’s what I’m going to do,” said Carmichael resident Mary Jameson-Pinson as she shopped for clothes at Sunrise Mall last week.

Statistics also point to increasing numbers of consumers starting their holiday shopping well in advance of Thanksgiving. Several recent national polls showed that more than 50 percent of surveyed shoppers said they had begun this year’s holiday shopping in early November, many of them lured by store sales touted with a holiday flourish.

For online shoppers, the holiday rush pre-dated Halloween.

A survey by shop.org, a digital division of the NRF, said that more than 40 percent of holiday shoppers started their buying in October or even earlier. Half said they wanted to avoid the stress of last-minute holiday shopping. Many said the shopping deals were “too good to pass up.”

Retail analysts and bloggers have flooded the communication portals over the past week in an effort to explain the reasons behind the early rush. Among the offerings: Thanksgiving comes late this year (Nov. 28), retailers looking to amass 40 percent of annual revenue in the last two months of the year can’t afford to stand on the sidelines while competitors get a head start and shoppers are on the hunt for deep-discount deals in the current economic climate.

Valid points all, but multiple analysts said the reasons go beyond that.

For starters, the wildfire growth of online holiday shopping has changed the game. Considered somewhat of a novelty less than a decade ago, online buying led by we-sell-everything giant Amazon.com has won over millions of consumers with alluring discounts, shipping specials and push-of-a-button convenience that negates holiday crowds.

The NRF said that more than half of all holiday shoppers in the United States this year will do at least some of their buying online.

The NRF said online shoppers, as a general rule, tend to start their Christmas shopping early. And they spend more. Shop.org said online shoppers are expected to spend an average of $884.55 on gifts, decorations, food and other holiday items this year, compared with $737.95 among all holiday shoppers.

‘Showrooming’ a worry

Retail analysts say that stores are countering the online wave with eye-catching in-store discounts, holiday-themed displays of merchandise and enhanced customer service. Best Buy is touting on-site personnel for electronics shoppers asking questions that they might have trouble finding answers to online.

“It’s no coincidence that you started seeing Christmas (TV) commercials from big retailers right after the trick-or-treaters called it a night this year,” said New York-based analyst Schaub.

Analysts note, however, that getting a rush of early holiday shoppers in brick-and-mortar stores cuts both ways, with the downside being a practice called “showrooming.”

Showrooming refers to a shopper visiting a store to examine and check prices on certain products up close, but then purchasing those same items for typically lower prices online. In recent years, analysts said Best Buy has been a primary victim of showrooming, with shoppers buying Best Buy-stocked electronics for less money on Amazon.com.

This year, Best Buy struck back early. It conducted a five-day early-shopper event last week. It also is offering price-matching guarantees and in-store pickup of online orders, and Best Buy stores will open at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day.

Other retailers – Wal-Mart and Target among them – are battling showrooming defections by selling products exclusive to their stores. In effect, they’re showrooming their own branded products. Another option: More retailers are allowing customers to pick up online-ordered items in their stores, overriding shipping costs.

Experts speculated that one other thing is likely prompting stores and shoppers to get going early this year: consumers’ relatively optimistic view of the economy. But with memories of the recent federal government shutdown fresh in their minds, consumer confidence is a moving target.

“In order for consumers to turn out this holiday season, we need to see steady improvements in income and job growth, as well as an agreement from Washington that puts the economic recovery first,” said NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz.

The federation predicts a 3.9 percent increase in November-December spending, to $602.1 billion, compared with the 2012 holiday shopping season. That would surpass the 2012 gain of 3.5 percent and the 10-year average of 3.3 percent. NRF also expects spending on gift cards to hit a whopping $29.8 billion this year.