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If Black Friday sales are going to start early, Nicole Bianchi's family will be ready.
To continue their decades-old shopping tradition, they're willing to move Thanksgiving dinner up to noon, enjoy the holiday until 4 p.m. or so, then spread out the ads and put together a strategy for sales starting at 6 p.m., 7 p.m., 8 p.m. and overnight.
“It's very much a bonding event,” Bianchi said, and retailers' Black Friday arms race isn't going to stop them.
Some families are rescheduling Thanksgiving dinner, while others are canceling Black Friday shopping traditions, as the steady march toward earlier sales and a more complicated schedule of advertised specials is forcing shoppers to re-evaluate their holiday plans.
“The traditions will change,” said Rob Simon, University of Nebraska-Lincoln marketing professor. Simon, the former CEO of the defunct Ben Simon's department stores started by his great-grandfather, said Black Friday used to be more of a family occasion, and less price-sensitive.
“We never would have considered doing it on a Thursday,” he said.
Now the event is driven by stores competing to lure customers with ever-earlier door-buster deals, he said. Walmart, the nation's biggest retailer, said it would kick off Black Friday deals at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day this year, two hours earlier than last year, while Kmart will open at 6 a.m. on the holiday and stay open for 41 hours straight. Best Buy opens at 6 p.m., Toys R Us at 5 p.m., and Kohl's and Sears at 8 p.m.
Department stores joined the rush this year, and J.C. Penney and Younkers also will open at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving.
The change means Christina Eickhoff's family will forgo the Black Friday stampede for the first time in many years.
“This year we heard that Walmart is doing it at 6, and everyone was like, nope,” said the 29-year-old stay-at-home mother from Tilden, Neb. “We barely have the dishes washed by 6.”
For years, Eickhoff, her sisters from Omaha and her brothers would gather at their mother's Norfolk home. After the 1 p.m. dinner, the women would do the dishes, the men would nap, and then it was time for pie, coffee and board games. Afterward, they'd put on jammies and get out all the ads, mapping out a Friday morning strategy.
Come 5 a.m. they'd be out the door, hair in ponytails, ready to shop.
When sales in recent years moved to midnight and then 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving, Eickhoff still snuck away with a friend to shop, but this year, she said she doesn't want to leave her family at 6 p.m. to shop sales.
“I wish it was like it used to be,” she said.
Some stores are trying to gain a marketing advantage out of refusing to open on Thanksgiving, catering to shoppers who say it's not right to open on the holiday.
Nebraska Furniture Mart will be closed Thursday but moved some bargains to today, what it calls “Black Wednesday.” Von Maur said its 29 stores will be closed Thursday and will open at 9 a.m. Friday. “Some things are sacred,” company President Jim von Maur said.
Other stores closed Thanksgiving include Cabela's, Gordmans, Costco, Burlington Coat Factory, T.J.Maxx and Marshalls.
But others are jockeying to open earlier and earlier, and families like Bianchi's aren't alone in their willingness to shop. Of the 140 million people who plan to shop over the four-day holiday weekend, 33 million plan to shop on Thanksgiving Day, a National Retail Federation survey determined. It was the first time the group surveyed shoppers about Thanksgiving Day shopping plans.
Friday will remain the biggest shopping day — 97 million plan to shop then.
The National Retail Federation expects holiday season sales, those in November and December, to grow 3.9 percent this year to $602.1 billion, more than the 3.5 percent sales growth in 2012.
More stores will be open this Thanksgiving than any other year in memory, said Bill Martin, founder of ShopperTrak retail customer analytics firm. But while retailers seem to be competing to reach customers first, offering deals on Thursday may not help them in the end, he said.
“What we're learning is that those sales that they're getting on Thursday is at the expense of Friday sales,” Martin told reporters in a recent conference call.
He expects retail sales on Thanksgiving to top last year's $800 million but said Black Friday will still be the top sales day of the year, for the 10th year in a row. Black Friday sales last year topped $11 billion, compared with a normal Friday of about $2.8 billion, Martin said.
Thanks to early deals, November's retail sales figures are gaining on December's and may eclipse them in a few years.
“That's a result of the retailers really trying to get at the wallet early,” he said.
People who want to shop Thursday and Friday will have to spend some time studying retailers' ads to plan out what they want to buy and when. Even malls and shopping centers are a crazy quilt of opening times. Consider Village Pointe, where on Thanksgiving Day, Old Navy opens at 9 a.m., Gap at noon and Carter's and Jos. A. Bank at 10 p.m., before a handful of others open at midnight.
In many cases, the advertised specials are available only during certain hours. Some stores have deals on Thursday and another set of deals early Friday.
With so many different store openings to juggle, consumers are increasingly turning to the Web and smartphone apps to plan their shopping experiences, resulting in declining window-shopping and foot traffic, Martin said. But because shoppers are better educated about what they want to buy, ShopperTrak still predicts an increase in sales.
Bianchi, 42, said she will plan her trip using newspaper ads, like her family has since she was young and her mother took her out in search of the Kmart “blue light special,” including hot 1980s toys like Cabbage Patch Kids dolls.
Today her own daughter is 14 and has become the third-generation Black Friday shopping expert.
“We've created a bit of a monster,” Bianchi joked.
But she said it's not about the buying, it's about the time together, huddled in the cold, drinking hot chocolate and laughing with other people in line.
This year their trip might not last as long — her mother, Betz Kremer, is fighting bone cancer and won't be able to stand in line like she used to.
Bianchi said the family is thankful she is still with them to celebrate the holiday, and one way or another, they'll maintain their tradition.
Kremer hopes she'll make it out and said she wants her granddaughter to continue the tradition with her own children someday, noting, “It'll probably be Black Tuesday by then.”