Thanksgiving has always been about counting blessings, carving turkey and catching a football game on TV.
But over the past few decades, those traditions have become, for many, just a prelude to the main holiday event: the start of the Christmas shopping season, which officially starts on "Black Friday."
But it's not really "Black Friday" anymore; these days, it's more like "Black Thursday."
This year, stores are launching their holiday sales earlier than ever, a phenomenon dubbed “Black Friday Creep.” Local Kmart stores open at 6 a.m. today, and ShopKo opens with "doorbusters" at 8 a.m. today. Other stores open at 8 p.m. today, and Rushmore Mall opens at midnight.
For retailers, the day after Thanksgiving generates huge revenues. According to CNN Money, American consumers spent a record $11.4 billion on Black Friday last year. And for many of those shoppers, fighting the crowds to get an $8 crock-pot or a $20 computer printer has become as much a tradition as falling asleep in an easy chair with a belly full of roasted bird.
“Our team members are excited, even though it’s a little bit earlier,” said Marty Cavanaugh, assistant manager at Target in Rapid City. He looks forward to it, too. “The adrenaline you have that (day) you just don’t get any other time of the year.”
But across the country, some people are rebelling against Black Friday, saying it has made Thanksgiving too commercial. They say the rush to start shopping earlier each year saps the holiday of its meaning, occasionally leads to angry mobs and even violence at some stores, and forces retail workers to forgo family time and go to work in the middle of the night.
But retailers say they are just giving customers what they want. According to a National Retail Federation survey, the number of shoppers at stores opening at midnight after Thanksgiving tripled from 2009 to 2010. That number is sure to be higher yet this year as customers scramble for deals that will be long gone by the time dawn finally breaks on Friday.
The making of a tradition
It wasn’t always this way.
Retailers have tried to entice people to shop the Friday after Thanksgiving since the late 19th century. In the 1920s, department stores such as Macy’s began sponsoring parades the day after Thanksgiving as a way of drawing shoppers downtown.
Thanksgiving was originally celebrated on the last Thursday of November. But around 1940, the holiday was changed to the fourth Thursday in November as a way to extend the holiday shopping season an extra week.
Factory managers coined the term “Black Friday” in the 1950s, referring to the fact that many workers called in sick the day after Thanksgiving. In the early 1960s, Philadelphia police used the term to describe the mayhem of the day, when intense crowds of shoppers and traffic clogged the city center.
According to Nancy Koehn, a historian at Harvard University School of Business, newspapers started using “Black Friday” in the 1970s to refer to the start of holiday shopping.
“Then in the 1980s, some enterprising merchants began to turn this around,” she recently told American Public Media’s “Marketplace” program. They did that by pointing to all the "black ink" that showed up on balance sheets as a result of heavy consumer spending that day.
“From here, it was a short hop to the idea that ‘Black Friday’ was the day when retailers historically came out of the red and went into the black by beginning to turn a profit,” Koehn said.
That may or may not be true, just as the idea that Black Friday is the biggest shopping day of the year may or may not be true. Some studies show that the biggest day in terms of spending is typically the last Saturday before Christmas.
But in terms of customer traffic — and advertising hype — there’s no comparison.
Black Friday "is certainly my highest customer count of any day of the year,” said Mark Kerr, manager of the Rapid City Menards store. It’s not their biggest day for sales, “but it is still a big day. It’s a very big day.”
At Target, Black Friday is the biggest day of the year in every sense.
“It’s our biggest day we have here,” said Cavanaugh, who has seen 30 Black Fridays during his career at the Rapid City Target. “It used to be a line of maybe 100 people. The line goes all the way down to Sam’s Club now. It’s huge.”
Just how huge?
According to the International Council of Shopping Centers, 34 percent of consumers 16 and older — or about 81 million people — will shop on Thanksgiving Day this year.
The National Retail Federation estimates that as many as 147 million people will shop during the Black Friday weekend. Last year, a record 226 million customers visited stores and shopped online between Thursday and Sunday, up from 212 million in 2010. During that four-day weekend, consumers spent a record $52.4 billion, up 16 percent from the $45 billion they spent in 2011, according to the retail group.
With all that money up for grabs, retailers are continually coming up with new strategies to garner their share. That includes “doorbuster” sales that start at different hours; online-only specials; promotions that continue through the weekend and into the next week; and, of course, earlier store openings.
“It’s critical for retail companies to constantly evolve as consumers do, and right now, shoppers want great deals, good value and convenience — exactly what we’re seeing with this season’s late and early openings, price-matching, layaway and mobile offerings,” National Retail Federation president Matthew Shay said.
Toys R Us, which opened at 10 p.m. Thanksgiving Day last year, has moved its opening up to 8 p.m. today.
“Customers repeatedly told us that they liked being able to do their Black Friday shopping after they had finished their turkey dinners,” Troy Rice, vice president of stores and services for Toys R Us, told theweek.com. That way, he said, “they didn’t have to spend all night outside in line and could sleep in on Friday.”
But to shopper Cherrie Martenson of Rapid City, getting up in the middle of the night to go shopping is part of the fun.
“I am kind of annoyed by (the trend), actually,” said Martenson, a teacher at Douglas High School who shops Black Friday sales every year. “I would rather have Thursday with my family and then not worry about it until Friday morning. I like getting up at 3 in the morning. Going out at 8 at night really isn’t the same, I don’t think.”
The push to open earlier each year begs the question of why stores close at all on Thanksgiving.
Kmart might take the cake for its confusing schedule: Its local stores will open with "doorbusters" as part of its "Black Friday preview" sale at 6 a.m. today and stay open until 4 p.m. before closing until 8 p.m., when it re-opens with a new set of specials that last until 3 a.m. Friday. Two hours later, at 5 a.m. Friday, the stores will re-open for the official Black Friday sale.
Walmart and Toys R Us open at 8 p.m. today; Target at 9 p.m. The Rushmore Mall opens at midnight this year, four hours earlier than last year.
Meanwhile, some businesses are bucking the trend of opening on Thanksgiving Day.
JCPenney stores will open at 6 a.m. Friday, 10 hours later than Sears. Cabela’s is closed today, too, in part due to a family-friendly approach to its staff.
“I think that every retailer has to do what’s best for them and their business,” Cabela’s marketing manager Jeanette Clement said recently. “However, at Cabela’s, we have found that 5 a.m. is really our niche, and additionally, we want to give Thanksgiving to our families.”
The trend toward Thursday openings could become the new normal, though.
As Rich Milgram, chief executive officer of career network Beyond.com, points out, Labor Day and Memorial Day used to be days of rest, too. But over time, society has come to expect businesses to be open and offer sales on those days.
“This says less about the retailer and more about society as a whole,” he told CNN. “Target, Sears, Kmart and others are all doing what they need to do (to) maximize sales and profits.”
The price of profit
But for some, there is a noticeable dark side to Black Friday.
In 2008, overzealous shoppers in Long Island trampled a Walmart worker to death as they tried to get into the store for deals that included a Magnavox Blu-ray player and an Xbox 360 with a free Guitar Hero III Legends of Rock game and guitar.
That death, along with the numerous other minor shopping injuries reported nationwide each holiday, prompted the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue safety guidelines for Black Friday and other busy shopping days.
Others say “Black Friday Creep” encroaches on a holiday that should be spent with loved ones. Some workers advocates have vowed to boycott businesses that don’t give employees the day off.
Retail workers across the country have started online petitions urging stores to “give Thanksgiving back to families” by staying closed today. As of Tuesday evening, one petition on change.org had collected 367,000 electronic signatures.
Retail employees aren’t the only ones who work holidays, of course. Law enforcement officers, medical professionals and many others work on Thanksgiving, too. But according to one local man who posted an anonymous message on a local news website, retail work is different and more demanding.
“Do you get verbally abused, trampled down, spat at and threatened over cheap material items every year on these two days?” a Rapid City Walmart employee posted online. He urged people to “do retail workers a favor and stay home.”
Locally, though, he seems to be in the minority.
“People working here, they actually look forward to it. It is early in the morning, but it is an exciting time,” said Mark Kerr of Menards. “The vibe is good about it; I certainly have quite a few employees who really get into it.”
So does Cavanaugh, whose Target employees quickly signed up to work early shifts during Black Friday, in part because they receive higher holiday pay.
Those who couldn’t work today were scheduled for Friday instead, Cavanaugh said, noting that Target will be open for 26 hours straight starting tonight.
If you’re after the $49 Nook or the $99.99 Nikon camera that go on sale at Target at 9 p.m., Scott Olson will be there waiting for you in the electronics department. When he gets off work at 4 a.m., he’ll head to his second part-time job at Cabela’s, where he’ll work a six-hour shift in the footwear and fishing departments.
This is his eighth Black Friday in retail, so he knows what to expect.
“Because I work in retail, I don’t travel on Thanksgiving,” said Olson, who along with his wife will spend the daylight hours today with family here in Rapid City. “Last year (Target) opened at midnight, so we pretty much were able to spend most of the day with them before I had to go to work. This year, it’s a few hours less.”
Olson doesn’t mind the controlled chaos of Black Friday, though he admits it isn't the place for anyone who is claustrophobic or in a hurry.
“Typically, you’re going to have six or seven people asking you for stuff at the same time," he said. "It took me two or three years, but I finally kind of got the knack for it. If you know where things are at, you can point, for the most part.”
Olson — who also holds down a full-time job at the Rapid City Public Library — plans to down Mountain Dew and Five-Hour Energy Shots to help him get through the night without a nap.
“I would like to see them go back to their 4 a.m. openings,” he said. “When I started at Target, the first three years, it was 6 in the morning. It’s just gotten sooner and sooner and sooner.”
Shopper Cherrie Martenson would like that, too. But, she added, “I’m still going out, so I guess I’m not, like, boycotting.”
She and her family planned to drive to Gillette, Wyo., for Thanksgiving dinner at her mother’s house today at 2 p.m. Her mom will then drive back to Rapid City with them so mother and daughter can shop together.
“I guess it’s genetic,” Martenson said. She has already checked out all the ads online and mapped out her strategy for Target and Walmart, where she hopes to score some electronics and toys for her 7-year-old son. She is contemplating squeezing in a nap then before venturing out for more shopping.
The Black Friday tradition isn’t one she shares with her co-workers at Douglas High.
“They all think I’m crazy and would rather just pay more money,” she said with a laugh. “I just think it’s fun.”
Contact Heidi Bell Gease at 394-8419 or firstname.lastname@example.org.