• Buyers come in waves on what’s now ‘Gray Friday’
     | November 30,2013

    The holiday shopping season started as a marathon, not a sprint.

    More than a dozen major U.S. retailers stayed open for 24 hours or more on Thanksgiving Day through Black Friday, and crowds formed early and often over the two days.

    By the time Jessica Astalos was leaving North Point Mall in Alpharetta, Ga., after a six-hour buying binge that started on Thanksgiving, another wave of shoppers was coming in about 5:30 a.m. Friday.

    “You just have to be out in the midst of all of it,” said Ricki Moss, who hit stores near Portland, Ore., at 5:30 a.m. Friday. “It’s exciting.”

    The day was also marked by fear when a bomb threat emptied a suburban New York Wal-Mart for about two hours, and a dispute over parking at a Wal-Mart in Virginia led to a fight Thanksgiving night in which one man brandished a rifle, sending shoppers scattering.

    Police Chief James Bradley in White Plains, N.Y., said Wal-Mart officials there received two threatening phone calls shortly before 1 p.m. Friday and decided to evacuate.

    Bomb-sniffing dogs swept through the store but found nothing suspicious, another official said. The store reopened after about two hours. Police were said to be investigating whether the threats were connected to protests around the country by activists calling for higher wages for Wal-Mart workers.

    This year may cement the transformation of the start of the holiday shopping season into a two-day affair.

    For nearly a decade, Black Friday had been the official start of the shopping period between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It was originally named Black Friday because it was when retailers turned a profit, or moved out of the red and into the black. Retailers opened early and offered deep discounts.

    But in the past few years, store chains have been opening on Thanksgiving.

    This year, several welcomed shoppers for the first time on Thanksgiving night, while Gap Inc., which owns Banana Republic, Gap and Old Navy, opened half its stores earlier on the holiday.

    Wal-Mart stores, most of which stay open 24 hours, have for the past several years offered doorbusters that had been reserved for Black Friday; this year they started at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving, two hours earlier than last year. And Kmart planned to stay open 41 hours starting at 6 a.m. on Thanksgiving.

    That has led some to question how much further Black Friday will creep into Thanksgiving, which along with Christmas is one of only two days a year that most stores are closed.

    “Black Friday is now Gray Friday,” said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, a retail consultancy.

    The earlier openings have met with some resistance.

    Workers’ rights groups and some shoppers had planned protests on Thanksgiving and Black Friday to decry the way some store employees were forced to miss holiday meals at home.

    Judy Espey ducked out of a Thanksgiving family dinner to buy a 50-inch flat-screen TV at Wal-Mart near Clifton Park, N.Y., for $288. But “I don’t really dig the Thanksgiving night thing,” she confessed. “I feel bad for the workers.”

    Vinnie Gopalakrishnan pledged not to hit the stores after seeing TV footage of people shopping on Thanksgiving. But he flip-flopped Friday after his cousin told him about a deal on a big-screen TV.

    “I said, ‘I’m not going to do it. Those people are crazy,”’ Gopalakrishnan said before heading to a Wal-Mart on Friday.

    It’s unclear whether the early openings will lead shoppers to spend more over the two days or simply spread sales out.

    Last year, sales on Thanksgiving rose 55 percent from the previous year to $810 million, as more stores opened on the holiday, according to research firm ShopperTrak. But sales dropped 1.8 percent to $11.2 billion on Black Friday, though it still was the biggest shopping day last year.

    Store sales numbers won’t be available until today. The National Retail Federation said 140 million people planned to shop during the four-day holiday weekend.

    Of course, not every retailer saw robust crowds.

    At Woodland Hills mall in Tulsa, Okla., the owner of Bags and Bangle complained that he had to stay open from 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving to 10 p.m. Friday. Suhail Zaidi, who was required by the mall to keep his booth open, said Thanksgiving was somewhat busy but that business had died down by 3 a.m. On Friday morning, he said he had seen only about 20 customers.

    “We ruined the holiday,” Zaidi said. “Black Friday is a good shopping day, but opening up on Thanksgiving is ridiculous.”

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