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Shoppers carve out time for Thanksgiving bargain hunting

Concerned about an uncertain economy and a shorter holiday buying season, more stores than ever open their doors on Thanksgiving.

November 29, 2013|By Tiffany Hsu, Andrea Chang and Saba Hamedy

At 6 a.m. on a chilly Thanksgiving, hours before most Americans awoke, let alone began roasting their turkeys, Manny Rios Jr. was rushing into a Kmart store in Burbank.

Fueled by free coffee and doughnuts catered by the retailer, the 47-year-old North Hollywood postman, his son Alex, 19, and a few dozen others steered their carts past fully staffed cash registers and a glittering display of Christmas trees.

Rios' targets: a $39.99 7-inch Android tablet discounted more than 40%, a $179.99 RCA television that was 25% off and a Proscan DVD player marked down to $14.99 from $29.99.

"Everyone's just passing Thanksgiving now — it's a fading holiday," the veteran of 16 years of Black Friday shopping said nostalgically. "By this time next year, stores are going to get rid of Black Friday entirely and go straight to Gray Thursday."

Retailers this year have moved up the gift-buying calendar, driven by stressful months of weak sales and uncertain consumer confidence. In addition, the key Thanksgiving-to-Christmas span is one weekend shorter than last year, which gives merchants less time to pack in the purchasers.

As a result, major retailers waiting until the day after Thanksgiving to open their doors are now in the minority.

On Thursday, more than 900 Old Navy stores opened at 9 a.m. and stayed open until 4 p.m., with the majority reopening from 7 p.m. through midnight the next night. More than 300 Gap stores and 30 Banana Republic locations were also welcoming guests on Thanksgiving morning. Several other chains held back, but only until Thanksgiving evening.

Morning traffic was light at the stores on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, though coffee shops and cafes were packed. Retail employees said most shoppers likely assumed that stores would be closed on Thanksgiving.

"I didn't know what to expect," said Erin Watterman, 42, a visitor from Los Gatos, Calif., who along with her husband and two daughters were the only people waiting to enter Old Navy at 8:50 a.m. "I would have thought there would have been more people but I'm happy to see there aren't because we can shop in peace."

Around noon, with two dozen stores open, batches of people began showing up to stroll the outdoor avenue and browse the merchandise. But many residents stayed in, some out of a belief that so-called Shopgiving events were insulting to an American tradition.

A poll from the University of Connecticut found that 9 in 10 Americans said they didn't plan to bargain hunt on Thanksgiving. Only 7% said they would shop on turkey day, compared with the 27% who said they intended to hit stores the day after.

Rick Caruso, the magnate behind shopping centers such as the Grove and the Americana at Brand, said his properties remained officially closed on Thanksgiving even as certain tenants welcomed patrons.

"Maybe I'm just old-fashioned, but a holiday should be a holiday, and people should be at home with their family and friends," Caruso said. "I would prefer to see stores closed."

Many shoppers compromised, staying home while scouring retailers' websites for deals Thursday.

Fry's Electronics, which rolled out online-only deals on Thanksgiving, saw its website crash in the morning under the weight of too many eager Internet shoppers. Product pages were slow to load or didn't load at all, and many customers found themselves unable to complete their purchases.

Overall, holiday sales will increase 4.5% to 5.5% compared with last year's season, according to Moody's Investors Service.

"It's not bad, it's not great," Moody's analyst Maggie Taylor said.

Retailers were prepared for massive crowds, and some even had behind-the-scenes teams monitoring traffic flow remotely.

Down a nondescript alleyway behind a Target store in Fullerton, a small group of investigators kept an eye on video feeds of the chain's stores around Southern California, Las Vegas and Hawaii.

They had a direct line to crowd-control personnel at the stores, which opened at the same 8 p.m. slot as JCPenney, Macy's, Kohl's and others. A backup generator stood ready in case power failures interfered with the Target team's visuals.

The worst would be a stampede into stores, said Doug Ramey, a senior manager of investigations for Target. It's something the team planned to "prevent at all costs" with more employees on site and a line management system that funneled customers inside in a regular cadence instead of stop-and-go groups.

"We're confident we'll have an eventless weekend," Ramey said. "And if something happens, I'm sure we can get ahead of it."

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which launched its first round of door busters at 6 p.m., arranged to have about 1 million workers running stores on Thanksgiving.

For retailers, it's a season of adaptation.

The period between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year is the shortest it's been in more than a decade. Many consumers are completing their holiday shopping earlier. And Americans seem to be trimming their holiday budgets.

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