Michael Sunder was lured away from his Thanksgiving dinner by a 40-inch television.
The 19-year-old and 41 million fellow bargain hunters, or about 17 percent of the population, were expected to forgo holiday traditions, if not the entire turkey, in search of bargains. Sunder, an Ellicott City, Md. native, parked in a lawn chair outside the Best Buy in Elkridge, Md. with six friends at 7 a.m. Thursday.
Retailers used to open at dawn on Friday, slashing prices so low on flat-screens that who could resist? Then, just a few years ago, it was suddenly midnight, a kind of slumber party of shopping. Last year, Black Friday crept stealthily into Thursday as the biggest big-box stores threw open their doors at 10 p.m. And this year, stores facing the dual challenge of a slow economic recovery and the proliferation of new online shopping tools have boldly invited themselves into the dinner hour — 8 p.m. — mingling some of the oldest of American rituals: giving thanks, eating turkey and hunting bargains.
Shopping on Thanksgiving is here to stay, and though many people are unhappy about it, consumers have only themselves to blame, the stores say. Just as much as we want to watch football, gather with family and succumb to tryptophan on Thanksgiving, more and more we want to shop.
The scene outside Washington area malls and shopping centers largely confirmed retailers' predictions that consumers were willing to give up a family dinner — or at least dessert — for a deep discount. By 4 p.m. Thursday, there was a line of more than a dozen people outside the Best Buy in the DC USA shopping center in Columbia Heights, Md. Many sat on milk crates, while a security guard was stationed at the front door to look out for line jumpers.
In parking lots and strip malls across the country, Thanksgiving was celebrated leaning against brick buildings or in a tent. Some, such as Gloria Maldonado, 39, from El Salvador, who spent hours outside a Best Buy in the District of Columbia in search of a cheap iPad, brought the turkey dinner and pumpkin pie with them.
This weekend is a critical one for big-box retailers, which count on holiday sales for 40 percent of their revenue every year. As consumers continue to hold their purse strings tight, retailers are jockeying for a bigger portion of a shrinking retail pie and pulling out all the stops to draw in shoppers.
Still, the idea that shopping was encroaching on family fellowship rubs many people the wrong way. After Target announced it would open at 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving, employees launched an online petition urging the retailer to stay closed.
Starting late Thursday, just as shoppers descended on local Wal-Mart stores, which began offering holiday deals at 8 p.m. this year, advocacy groups planned to hold protests to call attention to what they say are unfair labor practices at the mega-retailer.
"For workers, it means that we no longer have a holiday," said Jackie Goebel, who has worked at a Wisconsin Wal-Mart for 25 years. "Thanksgiving has been taken from us."
The intrusion into Thanksgiving may have reached its limit, some analysts say.
"Evening sales will absolutely continue — customers love it — but I think the sanctity of the day will continue to be protected," said Kit Yarrow, head of the psychology department at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. "I really don't think we'll see stores opening much earlier than this."
And the strategy may not be enough to secure the holiday sales boost that retailers are hoping for. The sales that stores racked up on Thanksgiving could eat into purchases that typically take place on Black Friday and the rest of the weekend.
Still, for retailers facing a tough holiday shopping season, it may be better to secure sales early rather than risk losing them to a competitor.
Retailers believe they have found a new pocket of holiday shoppers: young people not willing to wake up early Friday for the traditional discounts but willing to forgo Thanksgiving dessert.
To nab those younger midnight shoppers, Macy's planned to have DJs performing at many of its stores, while Old Navy promised copies of a new Wii game, Super Mario Bros U., to its first customers.
But this year's big discounts left some shoppers disenchanted. Felicia Hammond, 51, arrived at the Best Buy in Elkridge at 10:30 p.m. Wednesday anticipating that the line would wrap around the corner, as it did last year.
Instead, she said, the crowds were much thinner this time around. She and her grown children could have slept at home in bed and still managed to grab a spot in line on Thursday afternoon that would guarantee them one of the limited number of products on sale.
"Needless to say, my family is not happy that I am missing being with them another year," Hammond said.
An unemployed single mother, Hammond said the steep discounts allow her to buy big-ticket electronics that might otherwise be beyond her budget. But this year the deals were less impressive, she said. The television she purchased last year, for example, was bigger and only slightly more expensive than the one she intended to buy this year.
"I see nothing in Best Buy that was worth me giving up my holiday for and sitting out here for 24 or 25 hours," said Hammond, bundled up in a white winter coat and matching hat. "All I'm getting is two laptops and two Toshiba TVs."
"This will be my last year," she added. "I regret doing it this year."
Some retailers held out against the intrusion of the holiday shopping season into the holiday itself. Despite struggling to turn around sales, JCPenney didn't budge from its 6 a.m. Friday opening time.
In fact, about 81.5 million shoppers were expected to hold out for traditional Black Friday shopping, twice as many as were expected for Thanksgiving Day shopping, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.
And some — such as Dawn Rivers, who arrived at the Kmart in Fairfax, Va. on Thursday morning at 6:15 to buy, as she said, "whatever's on sale"_ were planning a shopping marathon that spanned both days.
Rivers, who lives in Vienna, Va., said she planned to go to Wal-Mart, Macy's and Bed, Bath & Beyond on Friday.
"Maybe I'll go tonight, too," she said. "It depends on how Thanksgiving goes."
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Tim Craig and Sarah Halzack contribued to this report.