There was an outcry last year when some US retailers opened at midnight on Thanksgiving, with workers and shoppers saying the holiday should be reserved for family, not spent lining up for the start of the Christmas shopping season.
This year, retailers are responding to the criticism by opening even earlier on Thanksgiving evening - and a handful are even planning to be open all day.
The lesson of 2011 was clear: earlier shopping hours were good for the top line. Retailers said their midnight openings drew a younger crowd who wanted to party - and shop - late rather than get up early. At Macy's Herald Square store in Manhattan, for instance, about 9,000 people were in line as it opened, compared with 7,000 for an early Friday opening the previous year.
"We got customer feedback that says, 'I like to shop earlier so I can go to bed earlier,' so as we looked at the balance of being competitive in the marketplace and being customer-centric," said Duncan Mac Naughton, chief merchandising and marketing officer for Wal-Mart, which will put its first doorbuster items on sale at 8 pm on Thanksgiving.
Just a few years ago, most major stores opened about 5 am on the Friday after Thanksgiving, usually the busiest shopping day of the year. This year, not only are the openings scattered across two days, but several retailers are offering staggered deals - some items at a certain time, other items a few hours later, still others over the weekend.
"We had Black Friday pretty cleanly teed up, with, here are the ads, here are the stores opening Friday morning, pick a retailer and go," said Brad Wilson, who lists Black Friday ads at BradsDeals. "Now you have this multiday affair, and you can go at different times."
Kmart has perhaps the most confusing hours. Like last year, it will open at 6 am on Thanksgiving. It will then stay open until 4 pm, close from 4 to 8 pm, reopen at 8, stay open until 3 am on Friday, close from 3 to 5 am, reopen at 5, and then stay open until 11 pm on Friday.
Sears, which was closed on Thanksgiving last year, will open at 8 pm on Thursday night. Sears Holdings, which owns both Sears and Kmart, said in a news release that customers wanted "more flexible Black Friday in-store shopping times."
Lord & Taylor was closed last year on Thanksgiving, but this year it will be open from 10 am to 7 pm.
Walmart, which is generally open 24 hours anyway, is offering the first deals on Thanksgiving two hours earlier than last year. Mac Naughton said customer feedback and competitiveness with other retailers were factors. Target, which last year got angry feedback from employees when it opened at midnight on Thanksgiving, this year moved it up three hours to 9 pm, according to a holiday circular posted online on Friday.
Some workers object to Thanksgiving Day holiday openings, saying it cuts into family time. It shows "disregard for all of our families," said Mary Pat Tifft, a Walmart employee in Kenosha, Wisconsin, who is part of the union-backed OUR Walmart group, in a statement. But in many cases, it can also mean a higher hourly pay rate for holiday duty.
Now, the handful of retailers who are holding off until midnight on Thanksgiving suddenly look like the respectful ones.
"We believe that Thanksgiving Day is a time to spend and celebrate with family, and we want our associates to do so," said Jim Sluzewski, a spokesman for Macy's, which will open at midnight. Kohl's will also open at midnight Thanksgiving, as will Best Buy, according to a circular posted online Friday.
Companies are also sprinkling sales throughout the weekend in an effort to keep traffic coming.
After its initial 8 p.m. sale, Walmart will put another set of items on sale at 10, and a third group at 5 a.m. Friday. "Whether they like to start early, stay up late, or go to bed early and get up early, we're going to have three different events that will meet their needs," Mr. Mac Naughton said. Then, Walmart will "kick off a weekend full of savings with more specialty offers" on items like jewelry, sewing machines and tools.
Target, after its 9 p.m. doorbuster special, will offer a free gift card for purchases made between 4 a.m. and noon on Friday, according to the circular posted on Mr. Wilson's site and elsewhere. (Target declined to confirm the authenticity of the circular, saying it had not yet publicly announced holiday details.)
Sears will do a second wave of promotions at 4 a.m. on Friday, eight hours after it opens. Sports Authority will do some doorbusters at its midnight opening, then put numerous others on sale over the weekend. And Ace Hardware is offering different percentages or dollars off, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Mr. Wilson of BradsDeals says the retailers may be intentionally trying to confuse shoppers. "They're trying to introduce more variables," he said, to make it harder to figure out exactly which is the best deal.
All of the twists and turns, though, may just end up frustrating consumers.
Only 6 percent of shoppers plan to hit stores on Thanksgiving night, and just under one-fifth will go to stores on Black Friday, according to a new survey from Ipsos and Offers.com, accurate within three percentage points.
At least one major retailer is going against the grain. Sam's Club, which last year opened at 5 a.m. on Black Friday, this year is opening two hours later, at 7 a.m., and offering coffee and pastries to shoppers.
"If they want to chill out on Thanksgiving day and not go out and get into the rat race of everything, they can do that," said Todd Harbaugh, executive vice president for operations at Sam's Club.