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Complaints -- and sales -- rise as Black Friday deals creep into Thanksgiving Thursday

In this Friday, Nov. 25, 2011, photo, a crowd of shoppers waits outside the Target store in Lisbon, Conn., before the store opens for Black Friday shopping at midnight. Stores are making a big push to lure in bargain-hungry shoppers before the Friday after Thanksgiving, the traditional start of the holiday shopping season. They are putting on special sales that further creep into Turkey Day. (AP file photo)1 / 2
Teresa Hartman2 / 2

Scene of the attack: Walmart, Mitchell. Victim: Teresa Hartman, 36, of Mount Vernon. Perpetrator: Unidentified elderly woman. Motive: $1.88 towels. Date: Black Friday, 2011.

"I had a little old lady jump on top of me and start punching me, all for towels," Hartman recalled recently, laughing at the memory. "All she would've had to do was say, 'Hey, can I have some?' It's quite the experience."

Notoriously aggressive crowds always congregate on the annual Christmas shopping kickoff known as Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and the most important day of the year for retailers.

With such demand for Black Friday deals and such eagerness on the part of stores to offer them, some retailers have been thinking: Why not start the fun as soon as possible -- like, say, on Thursday?

And that's precisely what many retailers are doing. Last year, stores such as Walmart and Target decided to move their Black Friday sales to Thursday night. This year, other stores are following suit, giving rise to the moniker "Gray Thursday" and rankling some consumers.

"I think it's absolutely wrong. I don't like that at all," Hartman said. "There's too many people gone for Thanksgiving. They're not going to get to shop."

Local store owners, like Sears co-owner Ashley Tilberg, have heard similar sentiments.

"A lot of customers are disgusted, with all retailers, taking away their Thanksgiving Day," said Tilberg. "They think that 4 a.m. on Friday is early enough."

Shoppers might not like it, but many will still do their best to be at the front of the pack.

Hartman said she is typically one of the first customers in line for the biggest deals, and that won't change.

"Last year, I think (Walmart) started them at 10 p.m. I was there by 6 o'clock," she said. "So now it just keeps getting earlier and earlier."

Hartman said she is the one her friends and family depend on to arrive early and nab the best deals, and even though she is not pleased with the Thanksgiving schedule, she will be at the front of the line as usual.

"Most people ask for Thanksgiving Day or Christmas Day off, but my boss knows Black Friday is a day I have to have off," Hartman said with a laugh. "I will be there (Thursday at Walmart) by probably 3 in the afternoon." Which means no Thanksgiving travels for her. "It will just be me and my husband for dinner," she said.

Thrill of the deal

Why is it so important for Hartman to be at the front of the pack?

Several reasons, she said, including the deals and the thrill of watching the craziness.

The big three stores Hartman plans to hit up are Walmart, Cabela's and Menards, where she hopes to score big savings on an iPad 2 and a meat grinder and slicer.

"Those are places I always go," she said. "It just kind of helps to know where everything is at. It makes your attack go faster."

For others, Black Friday is less about the big deals, and more of a way to make memories.

Jodi Doering, 35, is from Mount Vernon but comes to Mitchell every year to participate in a family tradition of Black Friday shopping.

"I have since I was a teenager. I got started with my mom, who has since retired from Black Friday shopping," Doering said with a laugh. "But I have continued to go every year, because I absolutely love to watch people."

Every year, after turkey, Doering said she and her family members break out the Black Friday ads.

"Sometimes all I end up with is a $2 candle, so it's not really about what is on sale, it's more just about having fun," she said.

Over the years, Doering said she has seen people "going crazy" over bicycles or "throwing elbows" to grab a camera. She said she typically hits Walmart, Menards, Kmart and Shopko.

"Last year, I took my 12-year-old with me and she was amazed to watch people in Walmart in Mitchell go crazy over bedsheets," Doering said. "We're not that die-hard."

That's not to say she never buys anything; she remembers getting a TV during a Black Friday sale a few years ago.

"We have scored the occasional really great deal," she said. "I count on it more as a family tradition than anything else."

She doesn't go so far as to camp out hours ahead of time, but she will make two trips this year, one with her 9-year-old daughter, and another with her 12-year-old.

And, she said her family tradition will continue despite the bumped up timeline.

"I think it's getting a little bit out of control, but at the same time maybe it's safer and will disseminate the crowds," Doering said. "The earlier they open, I'll keep going."

"The lines are long, but that's a time to visit," Doering said. "I love to watch those that are so die-hard with their walkie-talkies, or whatever apps are on their phone."

Those apps include the Walmart Mobile App, "for an on-the-go map" of the store.


Not all consumers have taken such a Zen approach, however. In 2011, more than 200,000 people signed a petition on to keep Target from openings its doors at 9 p.m. Thanksgiving night. Also in 2011, according to various media sources, another petition started by Anthony Hardwick was delivered to Target's Minneapolis headquarters. That petition had 190,000 supporters.

This year, a new petition titled "Target: Take the High Road and Save Thanksgiving" by C. Renee has already attracted more than 361,000 supporters.

Locally, Bill Mawhiney has started a Facebook petition called "Family Time Is More Important than a Good Deal." Mawhiney operates Time at the Table, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing families together around a meal.

"Simply join a revolution to put family first and not shop on Thanksgiving," is the page's slogan.

Since Facebook has no actual petition platform, the page is set up as an "event," with more than 2,000 people invited. By Monday night, 257 people had responded positively ("going"), with another 16 undecided ("maybe") and 1,926 more invited with no response.

But the public outcry does not jive with sales, according to retailers.

"Last year, Black Friday weekend's highest customer traffic was during the 10 p.m. Thanksgiving hour, and according to the National Retail Federation, Thursday night shopping has surged over the past three years," said Walmart spokesperson LaToya Evans. "In talking to our customers, we know that the circulars come out after the leftovers are put away, and millions of customers are looking to kick-start their shopping, once again, on Thanksgiving night."

Other retailers give similar reasons for the Black Friday bump.

"In recent years, our customers have told us they want to start shopping earlier on Thanksgiving and Black Friday," said Tara Zeller, spokesperson for Shopko.

Walmart, along with Target and Toys 'R Us, was one of the first to start opening earlier last year, when it started its Black Friday event at 10 p.m. Thanksgiving Day.

This year, the sales start even earlier, with the first of three "events" starting at 8 p.m. Thursday.

"This year, we are striking a balance between being competitive and meeting customer demand," Evans said.

A second event is set to start at 10 p.m., and the third Black Friday event will start at 5 a.m. Friday.

"Our three events will allow people to choose when they want to shop without sacrificing great deals on the gifts they want," Evans said.

Following the leader

Other stores, based on last year's sales results, feel they have no choice but to follow suit. Even stores like Family Dollar and Walgreens are pushing Thursday specials, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., respectively.

Traditionally, Shopko stayed open on Thanksgiving; this year, however, it not only will be open from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., but will re-open for its Black Friday event at 9 p.m. Thursday and stay open until 11 p.m. Friday.

"We also work hard to meet the needs of our customers and serve the markets where we do business," Zeller said. "Opening later than our competition would put Shopko at a significant competitive disadvantage, which ultimately may impact our teammates."

Other national chains like Sears have followed suit.

Sears, which touts that its stores are locally owned and operated, has added an 8 p.m. Thursday opening to its typical 4 a.m. Black Friday "doorbuster" sales.

Ashley Tilberg, who owns the Mitchell Sears store with her husband, Alex, said this will be the first year the store has opened on Thursday night and, though it was not mandated by Sears, she felt it was by sales.

"It is owner choice to do it, but we're so close to Sioux Falls, I knew if I didn't, I would lose the retail business to them," Tilberg said.

For stores like Walmart, staying open all night on Thanksgiving isn't much of a stretch.

"Most of our stores are open 24 hours and, historically, much of our Black Friday preparations have been done on Thanksgiving, which is not unusual in the retail industry," Evans said of the retailing superstore.

Other stores, like Shopko, are quick to point out the hours they aren't open on Thanksgiving as part of "flexible scheduling."

"Shopko values our teammates and we work hard to balance work and family (through flexible scheduling) while servicing our customers," Zeller said in an email to The Daily Republic. "We are closing earlier on Thanksgiving Day so that our teammates can spend the afternoon and evening with family and friends prior to the store re-opening at 9 a.m."

But, for others, like Tilberg, staying open all night will be challenging.

"I think it will be interesting," she said. "We're a very small-run business, and to be open 18 hours in a day and a half time frame is going to be stretching my staff of five people pretty hard."

Whether stores continue to push openings earlier will depend, it seems, on the consumer.

"As with any change, we will evaluate the 9 p.m. Thanksgiving night/Black Friday opening to determine if it is something we will do in the future," Zeller said of Shopko's future plans for Black Friday events. Regardless of when the sales start, some people will be there. "I always will no matter what. I am a die-hard," Hartman said. "People tell me I'm crazy."