World's largest retailer creeps into Thanksgiving dinner hours

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

So much for having time to digest that turkey before hitting the stores.

Wal-Mart is blowing right past what was shaping up to be an 8 p.m. barrier to shopping on Thanksgiving night by rolling out its first round of doorbusters at 6 p.m. — two hours earlier than it did last year. And the retail giant says it will follow that up with another round of deals that starts at 8 p.m. and another at 8 a.m. Friday.

“It’s kind of sad, but probably to be expected,” said Britt Beemer, CEO of America’s Research Group. “I thought retailers would respect the 8 o’clock hour more, but it didn’t take. … By moving up to 6 o’clock, we’re now encroaching into that Thanksgiving digestion time.”

But Wal-Mart isn’t alone. Best Buy announced last week that it, too, would open at 6 p.m. And Toys R Us will be going even earlier at 5 p.m.

Many other retailers, including Macy’s, Target, Kohl’s and J.C. Penney, as well as many shopping malls, will be opening at 8 p.m., some for the very first time.

Analysts say this Black Friday creep reflects retailers’ concern about forecasts of a not-so-great holiday shopping season and a heightened competitive landscape in which they are fighting tooth and nail for each dollar. Retailers are also nervous about a shorter holiday shopping season this year, with six fewer days between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“Black Friday is our Super Bowl of retail — it’s very important to us,” Duncan Mac Naughton, chief merchandising officer of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., told reporters in a conference call on Monday. “We thought 6 o’clock was the exact right time to win the weekend.”

He added Wal-Mart would extend the one-hour guarantee it tested out on three products last year to 21 deals this year. So shoppers who are in line between 6 and 7 p.m. — or between 8 or 9 p.m. — will be guaranteed to get that item at the discounted rate either in person that night or via mail before Christmas if stores run out.

Some of those deals include $98 for a Funai 32-inch LED TV and $38 for an LG Blu-ray player. Many, but not all, of the deals will be available online on Thanksgiving morning. But Mac Naughton said those deals will be limited by quantity, so he encouraged customers to come to the stores.

As for the estimated 1 million or more Wal-Mart workers who will be working on Thanksgiving, he noted that most stores are already open 24 hours a day and so employees were already accustomed to working that day and enjoy the excitement in the stores. He said they will be paid holiday pay and will receive a free Thanksgiving meal during their shift. They will also receive a 25 percent discount on their entire purchase on Dec. 5 or 6.

Target has said its employees who will work on Thanksgiving will get paid time and a half. And those who work on Thanksgiving or up until 8 a.m. on Black Friday will also receive some sort of additional compensation.

Bill Martin, founder of research firm ShopperTrak, noted that some retailers first started testing out Thanksgiving night openings a few years ago. The trend has since picked up steam.

“I’ve heard retailers suggest that consumers are demanding it,” he said. “I can assure you the consumers are not asking for it.”

But it’s a function, he said, of retailers trying to get into consumers’ wallets ahead of the competition and because they fear there could be bad economic news on the horizon. ShopperTrak has forecast holiday retail sales to increase 2.4 percent this year.

He still expects Black Friday to be the busiest shopping day of the year — as it’s been the past 10 years. But its No. 1 spot could be threatened as more retailers announce earlier Thanksgiving openings that could lead to more sales bleeding into Thursday, he said. That could make an opening for Super Saturday, the last Saturday before Christmas, to possibly overtake Black Friday this year.

In any case, he said it doesn’t appear the earlier Thanksgiving night openings lead to much of a boost in overall spending over the Black Friday weekend.

“From what little data we have, with only two years of anything measurable, Thursday sales are coming at the expense of Friday’s sales,” he said.

It remains to be seen whether this strategy will pay off for retailers. After all, Martin noted, many stores are paying their employees overtime to work the holiday hours.

“There is an extra cost,” he said. “So it’s going to be hard to make profit on that day. That will be the ultimate test as to whether this trend continues.”

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David Johnson, a branding expert with Georgia-based Strategic Vision, said the smarter public relations move for retailers would be to take a stand and not open on Thanksgiving. That could create a lot of buzz and goodwill among consumers. And, he added, that would help differentiate the retailer in the minds of consumers.

Instead, consumers will end up feeling some guilt that workers are being pulled away from their families that day, which could make them more sympathetic to campaigns for better worker wages.

“You don’t feel good that these employees have to give up their holidays,” he said. “So retailers are hurting themselves in a way.”

But despite the grumbling about the Thanksgiving openings, Beemer said many consumers won’t likely sit out the sales. After all, there are some sweet deals to be had on Black Friday.

“The Black Friday specials are truly rare,” he said. “Consumers know that, and that’s why they jump on them. They are not going to pass up the deal.”

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