People shop at a Target store Saturday in Stamford, Conn. The chain says… (Don Emmert, AFP/Getty Images )
At midnight on Thanksgiving night, Narine Anton and her regiment of 10 workers will welcome shoppers into Body Basics at the Glendale Galleria.
That's if she doesn't decide to open the specialty shop even earlier. Anton, manager of the store stocked with pajamas and cotton basics, is considering moving the time up to 10 p.m. on Turkey Day.
"If we open earlier, then maybe we can get the traffic from Macy's or Target and make more money," she said. "If we don't open with the big stores, they have extra hours with customers and we miss out on that."
Smaller specialty shops and independent boutiques say they face a pickle of a problem on Black Friday — especially this one.
As goliath retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Toys R Us and Target Corp. advertise deals that launch as early as 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving, many little stores are wondering whether they must follow the herd or lose out on shoppers during the traditional kickoff to the holiday shopping season.
They also face competition from online retailers that are gearing up for the holidays not only with their own Black Friday deals and bargains, but also on the following "Cyber Monday." That's the day Web merchants like to offer their own special Internet-only promotions.
Competing effectively against both online and offline rivals is crucial to surviving the holiday season for independent stores, said Scott Hauge, president of the advocacy group Small Business California.
A store can rack up as much as 50% of its annual sales during the holiday season, he said. A robust Thanksgiving weekend can build momentum for the next month, and a lackluster showing can spell trouble ahead.
That means picking a smart strategy — and the right Black Friday hours — is crucial for retailers that typically operate on razor-thin margins, Hauge said.
At S.Y.L.K., a young women's fashion retailer at the Westfield Fashion Square mall in Sherman Oaks, two employees are prepared to open the store at midnight, 10 hours earlier than normal.
Because the store just launched in July, manager Kathleen Moore decided it was worth the hassle of scheduling workers on Thanksgiving after talking to other boutiques.
The hope is that after shoppers are done pillaging the department stores, they will walk through the mall and step into S.Y.L.K., she said. "We want to pull that traffic from the early-bird shoppers into our store."
The wrong approach can be costly.
Coco's, a purse and accessories boutique at the Glendale Galleria, is welcoming shoppers at midnight. Store clerk Talin Amirian said the store learned its lesson after losing out on "a lot of sales" last year by opening at 5 a.m., hours after the midnight door-busters of nearby Target and Macy's.
Most shoppers were "done by the time we opened," she said. "We're not a big corporation, and we're not a big store, so we can't really afford not to open."
Hauge said small retailers may benefit by wooing traffic from department stores, but most can't offer the huge markdowns touted by huge retailers. So the savvy ones are stocking up on unique merchandise or crafting creative marketing and advertising campaigns, he said.
Anton at Body Basics has dreamed up a "flash sale" plan for Black Friday that involves back-to-back 10-minute discounts on select items.
Sales associates will walk through the store toting cardboard signs stating, for example, that between 1 and 1:10 a.m., Hello Kitty pajamas are 30% off. Interested shoppers will be handed a card guaranteeing that discount. Once the 10 minutes are over, clerks will start advertising another quickie sale on, say, cotton T-shirts or slippers.
"It's to get people excited about shopping," Anton said.
Other stores such as LaMerch, a Silver Lake gift shop, are hoping to attract shoppers the day after Black Friday, which has been dubbed Small Business Saturday.
American Express Co. launched the nationwide effort in 2010 to boost sales at local stores. More than 100 million people last year shopped at independent, small businesses that day.
"Last year the neighborhood and locals were out supporting small businesses," said LaMerch manager Sheila Chu. Sales jumped 20% to 30% that weekend. "They didn't want to drive to the mall and hit traffic. It was almost like a street fair festival."
Chu said the boutique is preparing for another bustling Thanksgiving weekend with goody bags, hot cider and food samples for shoppers.
But not all shops are bracing for a mad holiday dash on Black Friday.
At the Beverly Center boutique Politix, longtime manager Kwaku Aidoo scoffs at the idea of trying to compete with mass merchants. Instead, the store is opening at 8 a.m. Friday.
Politix, which stocks high-end European labels, would never open on Thanksgiving night like Wal-Mart and Target, he said. The store simply doesn't carry those limited-quantity, must-have gadgets that inspire shoppers to queue up right after turkey feasts.
"Apple could get away with it, because people will crawl over dead bodies to get the new iPhone," Aidoo said. "But nobody is going to run out at night to buy a $200 pair of jeans."