NEW YORK — Shoppers took advantage of retailers offering a Thursday night start to the traditional post-Thanksgiving holiday shopping season, lining up at stores to get deals on electronics and other items or to just see what the fuss was about.
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"I like watching the insanity, honestly," Jon Stroker, 40, of Littleton, New Hampshire, said after spending about $280 at a Walmart store in town and taking advantage of the retailer's 8 p.m. Thursday start of "Black Friday" deals.
Stores typically open in the wee hours of the morning after Thanksgiving on the day known as Black Friday, named for the period when stores traditionally turn a profit for the year. But Black Friday openings have crept earlier and earlier over the past few years. Now, stores like Wal-Mart and Toys R Us are opening their doors on Thanksgiving evening, hoping Americans will be willing to shop soon after they finish their pumpkin pie.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. had early bird shopping specials at 8 p.m., two hours earlier than a year ago. Target Corp. opened its doors at 9 p.m. on the holiday, three hours earlier than last year. Sears, which didn't open on Thanksgiving last year, opened from 8 p.m. and will stay open until 10 p.m. on Black Friday. And Toys R Us opened at 8 p.m., an hour earlier than last year.
It's an effort by stores to make shopping more convenient for Americans, who still face economic uncertainty. Many shoppers are worried about high unemployment and a package of tax increases and spending cuts known as the "fiscal cliff" that will take effect in January unless Congress passes a budget deal by then. At the same time, Americans have grown more comfortable shopping on websites such as Amazon.com, where they can get cheaper prices and buy from the comfort of their home or office cubicle.Video: Score best Black Friday deals at Staples, Gap, more
As a result, brick-and-mortar retailers, which can make up to 40 percent of their annual revenue during the two-month holiday shopping season, are trying everything they can to lure consumers into stores by making shopping as easy as possible. In addition to expanding their hours into Thanksgiving, many are offering free layaways and shipping, matching the cheaper prices of online rivals and updating their mobile shopping apps with more information.
The early hours on Thursday proved attractive to some people. In North Texas, David Diamondson of Grand Prairie even ate his Thanksgiving dinner in line at a Best Buy to try to get a 50-inch flat-screen ETV.
“We've got a little cornbread, stuffing, potato salad and turkey,” he told NBCDFW.com.
In Miami, Xavier Medina said he and his family had camped out since Monday, hoping to get a 50-inch LED TV at Best Buy.
"We take turns," the Black Friday veteran told NBC 6 South Florida. "People go to work and come back. I'm the one who takes the cold weather."
Danelys Paiz and her husband, Armando Villar, made waiting in the cold for a TV a family affair. "We have like seven blankets on top of us," Paiz told NBC 6.
Villar said the 40-inch TV that they were after was almost half off its normal price. "I mean, $179 — you can't find that anywhere else," he told NBC 6.
Overall, about 17 percent of shoppers planned to take advantage of Thanksgiving hours, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers-Goldman Sachs survey of 1,000 consumers conducted from Nov. 15 to Nov. 18. Last year, that figure was 16 percent. For Black Friday, traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year, 33 percent intend to shop that day, slightly down from 34 percent in 2011.
But not everyone likes the idea of Turkey Day shopping. Some retailers that are opening on Thanksgiving face criticism from workers who complain that the holiday should be a time for everyone to spend with their family.
A New York-based union-backed group of retail workers called Retail Action Project is planning protests in the Manhattan borough of New York City on Thanksgiving in front of several stores, including AnnTaylor, Forever 21 and others that are opening at midnight on Black Friday and earlier.
"It shows that the companies are not valuing their workers. They're looking to their workers to squeeze out more profits," said Carrie Gleason, director of Retail Action Project.
Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, has been one of the biggest targets of protests against holiday hours. The issue is part of a broader campaign against the company's treatment of workers that's being waged by a union-backed group called OUR Walmart, which includes former and current workers. It's staging demonstrations and walkouts at hundreds of stores on Black Friday.Video: $586 billion holiday shopping boost expected for economy
Mary Pat Tifft, a Wal-Mart employee in Kenosha, Wis., who is a member of OUR Walmart, started an online petition on signon.org that has about 34,000 signatures.
"This Thanksgiving, while millions of families plan to spend quality time with their loved ones, Wal-Mart associates have been told we will be stocking shelves and preparing sales starting at 8 p.m.," she wrote on the site.
But retailers say they are giving shoppers what they want. Dave Tovar, a Wal-Mart spokesman, said that the discounter learned from shoppers that they want to start shopping right after Thanksgiving dinner. Then, they want to have time to go to bed before they wake up to head back out to the stores.
Still, Tovar said that Wal-Mart works to accommodate its workers' requests for different working hours. "We spent a lot of time talking to them, trying to figure out when would be the best time for our events," he said.
Kathee Tesija, Target's executive vice president of merchandising, said Target's 9 p.m. opening struck "a perfect balance" for its customers. When asked whether it's faced any criticism from Target employees, she noted that the chain also works with workers to accommodate their needs. But, ultimately the company serves the customer.
"We thought long and hard about when the right opening time would be," she said, adding that Target "wants to make sure we are competitive."
This article includes reporting from The Associated Press, Reuters, NBCDFW.com and NBCMiami.com.
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