Black Thursday: Retailers’ move into holiday draws mixed reactions

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It’s being called “Black Thursday” and even “Brown Thursday,” but regardless of its name, the annual holiday shopping ramp-up is starting earlier this year – on Thanksgiving night.


Last year was the first year that some retailers opened at midnight on Thanksgiving night or earlier, earning the term “Black Friday Creep.” This year, the creep of the holiday shopping season moves further into the national holiday once reserved solely for family gatherings for turkey and talk and maybe a televised football game.


This year, major retailers will open earlier on Thanksgiving night, including Walmart, Kmart, Sears and Toys r Us, all at 8 p.m., and Target at 9 p.m.


As in years past, stores will entice early shoppers with “doorbuster” specials, in hopes that they’ll stick around and do more shopping.


But Joan Pollock of Eighty Four won’t be among those lining up tonight at retailers’ doors.


Standing in the parking lot near the Washington Mall Toys r Us store, Pollock said she thinks today’s holiday should be for, well, giving thanks with family and friends, and saving the holiday shopping for another day.


“I don’t think it’s right,” she said. “There’s going to be a lot of things to buy, but nobody needs to be buying them on Thanksgiving.”


She said she’ll be spending the holiday at her daughter-in-law’s home in Wheeling, W.Va., adding that her daughter-in-law will take part in traditional Black Friday sales tomorrow.


That’s not to say that many Americans won’t be heading out to stores tonight and throughout the weekend.


The National Retail Federation, which represents retailers both large and small, is projecting that 147 million shoppers will visit stores and shop online during Black Friday weekend. That’s down from the 152 million who participated last year.


Online shopping is what Shannan Newberry intends to do this weekend.


Newberry and her husband, Todd, of Erie, Kan., had stopped Wednesday morning at Target in South Strabane Township on their way home after Todd had bagged a black bear in northern Pennsylvania.


A registered nurse who works as a supervisor in a hospital, Shannan said online shopping enables her to finish most of her holiday shopping.


The spouses were split when it came to assessing the Black Thursday move by retailers.


“I liked it better when it was on Friday,” Shannan. “It seemed more like an event.”


But stores “have the right to open on Thanksgiving if they want to,” said Todd, adding that people can elect to skip it.


Some of the millions who shop this weekend will visit local venues, including Washington Crown Center in North Franklin Township and Tanger Outlets in South Strabane Township.


Michael Joyce, general manager of Washington Crown Center, which is opening at midnight tonight, said he expects to see a lot of bargain-hunting this year.


“They’re always looking for bargains,” he said of holiday shoppers, citing a recent survey by online shopping service PriceGrabber.com that 74 percent of the people it surveyed said they would be looking for big bargains and deep discounts this season.


Affordability factor

That assessment didn’t surprise Dr. Audrey Guskey, assistant professor of marketing at Duquesne University, who studies national and regional retail trends.


“They’re going after some huge savings, because otherwise they can’t afford it,” Guskey said. She said she believes the continuing trend of stores opening on Thanksgiving evening “is a huge indication of how bad the economy is.”


Both NRF and the International Council of Shopping Centers, which represents mall operators, cited concerns over the sluggish economy and the looming $500 billion in automatic cuts to the federal budget as reasons for expecting shoppers to be conservative this year.


That won’t stop most people from heading out to Tanger Outlets, which has extended its Black Friday event to 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving, when general manager Jodi Dague and her staff are kicking off the center’s annual Moonlight Madness Sale.


She noted that Tanger, which focuses on apparel, has always promoted itself as a place where people can find bargains among its brand-name merchandise.


According to Dague, the Black Friday weekend, which runs from 10 p.m. Thursday to 9 p.m. Friday, and also offers extended hours of 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, draws an average of 100,000 shoppers for the weekend event.


She said the economy will give more people a reason to shop outlets like Tanger.


“If they haven’t shopped outlets before, they will now,” Dague said. “They’re looking for brands, and they’re looking for a good price on them.”


A flawed strategy?

While she’s a strident supporter of the retail industry and the marketing trends and techniques that help to keep it running, Guskey said she’s saddened to see the continuation of what was called “Black Friday Creep” last year morph into what some now call “Brown Thursday” or “Black Thursday.”


“I think we’ve overextended ourselves now,” she said of retailers’ continued extension into Thanksgiving.


While the National Retail Federation is projecting a 4.1 percent increase to $586.1 billion in holiday sales over 2011, Guskey said the estimate is “very optimistic,” pegging it at 3.5 percent instead, a figure squarely between NRF’s and the 3 percent estimate offered by the ICSC.


In acknowledging that the earlier hours on Thanksgiving night will no doubt generate big sales for retailers, Guskey said the strategy may not produce much of a different bottom line for the season that means so much to their profit picture.


“Shoppers may spend on Thanksgiving, but might not spend it later. We only have so many dollars in our pocket,” she said.


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