ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Bryna Reid wasn't in charge of cooking the turkey this year, so she popped over to Kmart early Thursday to take advantage of its Thanksgiving Day "doorbuster" deals.
What, shopping on Thanksgiving? For all the criticism surrounding this year's pre-Black Friday shopping season, Ms. Reid said she didn't have a problem hitting the sales on what might be called "Gray Thursday."
"I think if you want to shop on Thanksgiving, that's OK," said Ms. Reid as she loaded her bags into her car. "I looked online and saw Kmart had some really good deals. My little sister took my boots, and I saw Kmart had a [buy one get one], so I got some boots for me and my son."
Kmart was the earliest of the major early-shopping retailers, opening its doors at 6 a.m. here for its "triple doorbuster" sale. A dozen other stores were scheduled to open Thursday evening, starting at 5 p.m. with Toys R Us.
Those opening at 6 p.m. Thursday included Wal-Mart and Best Buy, while a half-dozen others were planning to open their doors at 8 p.m., such as J.C. Penney, Macy's, Sears, Staples, Target and Kohl's, according to CNBC-TV's Black Friday Scorecard.
The Thanksgiving Day openings riled groups like ThinkProgress, which has dubbed the early shopping schedule "the war on Thanksgiving" and criticized retailers for "dragging millions of workers away from family and friends."
Meanwhile, the pro-labor group Our Walmart plans protests at 1,500 locations on Thursday and Friday to rally for higher wages for Wal-Mart employees, described in a news release as "one of the largest mobilizations of working families in American history."
Wal-Mart spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan told The Associated Press that her company's employees have given "really good feedback" about working the holiday. The Arkansas-based retailer also noted that it gives workers holiday pay, is serving them dinners and giving them a 25 percent discount on a purchase.
Retailers argue that the early openings are more important than ever this year, given the tight-fisted mood of consumers and the shorter shopping season between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Falling on Nov. 28, this year's Thanksgiving is as late as it possibly can be, cutting several days off the normal holiday shopping period.
For many years now, the day after Thanksgiving has been the biggest shopping day of the year, has carried the nickname "Black Friday" and been considered the start of the Christmas shopping season.
But that dominance has eroded in the past few years, both from cybershopping accounting for a bigger share of every retailer's sales and from a kind of arms race among retailers about who can be open first. Openings and the associated sales and door prizes and so on have gradually and more widely been pushed back in the past decade from 6 a.m. Friday to midnight to Thanksgiving evening and now, earlier still on Turkey Thursday.
In New York, More than 200 people waited outside a Toys R Us, led by Green Bryant, 28, who told an Associated Press reporter that she had been in line since 10 a.m. — seven hours before the store opened. And a Brooklyn Target store already had about 25 people before 3 p.m., in anticipation of the 8 p.m. opening.
"Honestly if I can get a good deal, I do not mind," Theresa Alcantaro said about Thanksgiving Day shopping and missing a family gathering of about 40 people. "I see my family every day. They understand."
Ms. Bryant, a restaurant manager, said she bought a dollhouse, a LeapFrog learning system and a Barbie doll. She said she had no regrets about missing much of the day but would cook a dinner for her family when she got home in the evening.
"It was worth it," she said. "Now I gotta go home and cook."
Last year, according to ShopperTrak, nationwide retail sales on Thanksgiving Day reached $810 million, from around $520 million in 2011. While 2012 Black Friday sales were off 1.8 percent from the previous year, the $11.2 billion figure still dwarfed the Thursday numbers.
"Black Friday is now Gray Friday," Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, told the AP. "It's been pulled all the way to the beginning of November."
And, as with Black Friday, Gray Thursday has seen stores respond by offering deep discounts and tantalizing sales.
"Wal-Mart is dangling a 32-inch flat-screen TV for $98, down from $148 last year," Bloomberg News reported. "Sears has waived layaway fees and its Kmart chain is introducing a rent-to-own program."
Perhaps no retailer has done more to lure consumers than Old Navy, which is launching a promotion called Overnight Millionaire. The first 500 shoppers at its stores, which opened at 7 p.m. Thursday, will be entered for a chance to win a randomly drawn $1 million prize.
"Overnight Millionaire game cards are sure to go quickly so be sure to line up early!" said the Old Navy ad.
None of this is an issue in Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, where state "blue laws" prevent department stores and other large retailers from opening on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
At the Kmart here in Colorado, several shoppers said the controversy over Thanksgiving shopping has been overblown. Most grocery stores have long offered limited hours for cooks in need of last-minute ingredients, and Starbucks is open Thursday morning for those craving a pre-turkey jolt of caffeine.
Ben McFarland had an urgent reason for making the trek to Kmart: He said he planned to deep-fry his turkey, and "We ran out of propane."
Kathy P., who declined to give her last name, said shopping at Kmart on Thanksgiving morning is as much a family tradition as cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. This year, she was accompanied by her two daughters and granddaughter, all of whom were toting bags that included socks and pajamas.
"Kmart is always open on Thanksgiving morning and has been for 20 years," she said. "Every year, we put the turkey in the oven and then come down here for the deals."
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