As shoppers jockeyed their carts for position and prepared for the retail scramble, Walmart fired the proverbial gun on its first big deals of the holiday shopping season at 8 p.m. Nov. 22.
Lydia Moody, a graduate student at Western Carolina University escaped from the chaos that night clutching a Crock-Pot, bath mat and DVD. She missed out on the $10 Crock-Pot and had to settle for a $15 one, which retails for $30.
“It was insane in there,” she said, now safely outside the retail giant’s store. “People with carts, getting crazy.”
But, the reprieve was short-lived. Moody took her Crock-Pot — a gift for her boyfriend who likes to make stew — and shuffled next door to join her family, camped out in lawn chairs in a snaking line at Best Buy. There she traded the hostile crowds for bitter weather in hopes of scoring one of the large flat-screen televisions promised by the electronics chain come midnight.
Moody and her family were not alone on Thanksgiving Day. In fact, they were part of a national trend that has seen shopping time slowly gobbling up Thanksgiving time.
Across the country, more than 35 million Americans visited retail stores or surfed online retailers on Thanksgiving Day this year. That number is up from 29 million last year, according to surveys conducted by the National Retail Federation (NRF).
During the years, retailers have been pushing the envelope on when Black Friday really begins — first it was 6 a.m., then 4 a.m., then 12 a.m. and now 8 p.m. the day before.
The challenge for 24-hour retailers like Walmart — which is actually open all day on Thanksgiving — is creating the illusion of door buster deals. The solution: pseudo “openings” inside the perpetually open store. Pallets piled high with special deals are encased in Saran Wrap, which is ceremonially sliced open by employees at the appointed discount hour as a line forms around the stack of merchandise.
The move by retailers to continually inch the clock back into Thanksgiving Day itself has caught some flack from labor groups. The corporate quest for consumer sales has chipped away at the holiday’s traditional family time for the employees who are pressed back into service so quickly after their Thanksgiving meal.
But apparently shoppers didn’t seem to mind. In fact, they seem to enjoy the parking lot camaraderie just as much as a day on the sofa watching football at home.
Blair Plisko camped out outside Best Buy in Waynesville for the better half of the day, waiting for the doors to open at midnight and grant him a 40-inch LCD television for $179.
“Twelve hours for a good deal — that’s worth it,” he said. “It’s fun, too.”
Another young couple had been staked out in front of the store since 10 a.m. on Wednesday — spending the day, the night and next day as well — waiting for the same steal.
An estimated 28 percent of post-Thanksgiving shoppers were at the stores by midnight, up four percent compared to the previous year, according to the NRF.
The early surge pushed sales that weekend to an estimated $59 billion nationally, another increase compared to last year.
But it was mostly the large chains in the area — Belk’s, Michaels, Best Buy, Walmart and Kmart — that could take advantage of a late Thanksgiving Day and early Black Friday rush, wielding their extensive inventories and expansive retail space.
“Big box chains are the ones really positioned to benefit from this effect,” said WCU professor of economics Robert Mulligan. “You can’t emulate it in a small store.”
However, the small business owners who had to sit on the sideline Thursday night while the chain stores welcomed crowds of customers, should nonetheless be encouraged by a good turnout at their competitors’ venues. That it comes in a year when the economy is still bouncing back from a recession is even more promising.
The small downtown merchants don’t need spiking sales on Black Friday, or Grey Thursday, to be successful, Mulligan said.
“The fact that business is good elsewhere — is good for any retailer,” Mulligan said. “It’s really taken to be indicative of how the selling season is going to go over Christmas and the month of December.”
There is the possibility that consumers blew all their cash too early and lagging December sales will follow Black Friday, he said, but generally, the pace set by Thanksgiving weekend holds true.
However, as the retail picture looks a bit rosier for the those behind the cash register following the shopping weekend, for consumers, a Black Friday deal isn’t always such a deal.
Many store-goers, lured in with the promise of a can’t-miss discount, leave with something entirely different in their shopping bags.
Of the crowd of shoppers waiting patiently Thursday night outside of Best Buy in Waynesville, in a line that snaked around two sides of the store, only a limited number were going to walk away with the great television deal.
The retailers’ goal is to get them in the door — and then bank on the fact that shoppers will buy something else as long as they’re there.
That scenario played out tragically for one family visiting from Florida — a teaching moment for all that the first shopping night of the season can turn out a total bust.
Paul Orth, with his wife and son-in-law, was having drinks in a bar Thursday as he un-excitedly displayed what he had bought at Walmart earlier that night.
Orth had gone in the store, “just looking for a deal,” and emerged with three mechanical, barking, stuffed dogs. He paid $15 for each — although they retail for $55.
“That’s the whole gimmick of it,” he said, as he admitted defeat. “We walk in and get three dogs.”