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Thanksgiving openings mean a less frenzied Black Friday

By Ely Portillo, Caroline McMillan Portillo and Deon Roberts
elyportillo@charlotteobserver.com

Shoppers and retail-watchers said Black Friday lost a bit of its frenzy this year, as earlier store openings on Thanksgiving shifted spending away from the early-morning madness Americans have come to expect.

Thousands of people still streamed to malls across the Charlotte region, drawn by discounts on everything from FurReal dog robots to flat-screentelevisions to boots.

But many said crowds were more sparse than in recent years.

Sarah Bush has been a Black Friday shopper for 12 years. This year, she hit up Old Navy, Target and Carolina Place mall at 8 p.m. Thanksgiving and SouthPark mall on Friday.

“It’s been super-weird this year,” Bush said. “(The earlier openings) threw everything off. We were used to being up at 2 or 3 and in line by 4 a.m.” Compared with previous Black Fridays, she said, “it almost seems like a ghost town.”

Charlotte resident Lisa Bambach has shopped at Northlake Mall on Black Friday for two years. “It doesn’t feel like Black Friday,” said Bambach. There was “more excitement” at the mall last year, she said.

With retail analysts mostly calling for modest increases in holiday spending this year, big-box stores are fighting hard for customers’ money. To attract business and keep pace with competitors, they opened hours earlier than they did last Thanksgiving.

K-Mart opened at 6 a.m.; Toys ‘R’ Us at 5 p.m.; Best Buy and Walmart at 6 p.m.; and Target, Belk, Macy’s, Kohl’s, J.C. Penney and local malls at 8 p.m.

It’s unclear if the longer shopping times will actually encourage people to spend more or just spread out their spending over more hours. Retail tracking firm ShopperTrak reported last year that spending on Black Friday decreased 1.8 percent, to $11.2 billion, as more people shopped on Thanksgiving Day.

Around the country, there were isolated reports Friday of scuffles and fights over televisions and other items, but no serious incidents were reported.

Although workers’ rights advocates denounced the wave of Thanksgiving openings and protesters gathered outside Walmart stores in several major cities, no major backlash appeared to develop this year. Online petitions from people urging stores to stay closed on Thanksgiving gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures, but had no discernible impact on retailers.

Some stores said they had benefited from the earlier openings.

Walmart said more shoppers visited on Thanksgiving Day than last year, when 22 million shopped, though the retailer didn’t offer an exact figure for this year. More than 10 million transactions at Walmart registers occurred between 6 and 10 p.m. Thanksgiving, the company said. That’s slightly more than Walmart said it recorded between 8 p.m. and midnight last year.

Macy’s said 15,000 people turned out for its 8 p.m. flagship store opening in New York City, more than the 11,000 last year, according to the Associated Press. Target said traffic in its stores was strong, and it processed twice as many orders online as last year.

Stores face a sprint to the end of the holiday shopping season now, with less than a month before Christmas. The busiest shopping days are likely still to come: Retailers are already advertising Cyber Monday promotions for next week. And the weekend before Christmas often sees the biggest crowds of the year.

Spread out spending

Charleston-based retail analyst Britt Beemer, of America’s Research Group, said he thinks big-box retailers diluted the consumer excitement around Black Friday with ever-earlier Thanksgiving Day openings.

“I think retailers made a mistake,” said Beemer, whose company regularly surveys hundreds of shoppers. The “doorbuster” deals that drew frantic crowds in years past were largely finished soon after sunset Thursday. “You’re not seeing nearly as many shoppers out for the deals (on Black Friday) as you traditionally have.”

Part of the problem might be deal fatigue, Beemer said. With retailers offering low prices on electronics for years now, consumers just aren’t as easily impressed. Walmart had a 32-inch flatscreen TV for $98 this year. “Next year, is it going to be $49? How low can you go?” Beemer said.

Still, he doesn’t expect Thanksgiving openings to go away. “I think you’re going to see retailers scratch their heads and say ‘I don’t mind being open on Thanksgiving, but I have to rethink my Friday morning plans now,’” said Beemer.

Some shoppers said they intentionally skipped shopping on Thanksgiving Day.

“It’s a time for family,” said Mary Ann Myers, who drove up from Columbia, S.C., to SouthPark to shop with her husband on Friday.

Some who waited to shop on Black Friday said they felt they missed out on deals.

“The variety was gone,” said Natacha Deberry, an Anson County resident who got to Northlake at 9 a.m. Friday. “All of the (deals) that were in the paper, they were wrestled over last night when we were with our family.”

Crowds were noticeably smaller for Thursday’s 8 p.m. opening of Concord Mills than they were for last year’s midnight opening. A line that had wrapped around three sides of the Toys ‘R’ Us store in Pineville last year for the store’s 8 p.m. opening only stretched around two sides this year for the 5 p.m. opening.

And Best Buy campers – those nomadic symbols of Black Friday frenzy who squat for days to ensure they get their discounted electronics – were mostly absent from area stores this year.

Scott MacCabe, owner of Savory Spice Shop in South End, opened a pop-up store in SouthPark for the holiday season. He was at the mall for the 8 p.m. opening Thursday. While he said people rushed to stores for the “doorbuster” deals, the mall as a whole wasn’t that busy.

“There were not stampedes,” he said. More customers started arriving Friday morning, MaCabe said.

With big-box retailers pushing their openings earlier, Beemer said that left an opening for local stores to appeal to more traditional Black Friday shoppers on Friday. Queen City Audio Video & Appliances followed that strategy, eschewing a Thursday opening for an 8 a.m. Friday start.

“We ask a lot of our employees but you get to a point where you have to consider their well-being,” said CEO Roddey Player. “I thought it was just asking too much, to be honest. The retail business is tough anyway. We already work late, we work weekends.”

To publicize the decision, the company posted a grateful message from a customer on its Facebook page, praising Queen City for “supporting Thanksgiving values.”

To help make up for the lost selling time versus competitors on Thanksgiving, Player said he started offering Black Friday deals more than a week ago. He said Friday morning foot traffic at his stores was up over last year.

“I don’t think we’ve given up any ground being closed on Thursday,” Player said. The Associated Press contributed.

Portillo: 704-358-5041; Twitter: @ESPortillo
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