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The gap between giving thanks and grabbing deals will all but disappear this year, as the 2013 shopping season encroaches on Thanksgiving like never before.
Most major retailers and many malls have moved midnight openings forward four hours to 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving, and will stay open for 28 hours of nonstop shopping until they finally dim the lights and lock the doors later on Friday night, officials say.
Before the turkey cools and the gravy congeals, stuffed consumers will be lined up at stores across the United States to claim sharply-discounted TVs, kitchen appliances and video games. They'll be assisted by retail employees who will work through the night rather than spend time with their families.
Black Thursday, for better or for worse, is slowly usurping Black Friday in the hearts and minds of many shoppers and retailers.
The move is part of an ongoing fight for survival by the brick-and-mortar retail industry, which is competing against online discounters for shoppers' holiday dollars. Adding the extra hours of shopping costs retailers more in terms of wages and other expenses, while doing little to actually increase the total amount of goods shoppers will buy, analysts say.
But if retailers don't open earlier, impatient shoppers may decide to buy their gifts online instead of heading to a local store, which would cut into sales at a make-or-break time of year.
"The whole point of it is so that we can be one of the first retailers that guests come to, so they can find what they need in our store before they go anywhere else," said Lacy Richmer, human resources manager at Target on Gunbarrel Road.
Both Hamilton Place and Northgate malls will open at 8 p.m., the first time either has opened before midnight. Target and Kohls also moved their doorbusters specials up to 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving, after opening at 9 p.m. and midnight, respectively, in 2012.
Electronics retailer Best Buy is working to stay ahead of the pack by opening at 6 p.m., offering waves of electronics deals as the evening wears on. Some families won't even be done with their Thanksgiving dinner. Then there's Kmart, which will open for business at 6 a.m., skipping Thanksgiving altogether.
• Retail sales in the months of November and December are expected to marginally increase 3.9 percent to $602.1 billion.
• Retailers are expected to hire between 720,000 and 780,000 seasonal workers this holiday season, in line with the 720,500 they hired in 2012.
Source: National Retail Federation
Some retailers, like Walmart, began offering specials earlier this week, offering what it calls "Black Friday Deals" throughout the last third of November.
"The No. 1 reason this is happening this year is the competitiveness in the retail industry with online shopping, and the other choices people have to buy," said Barb Faucette, vice president of mall owner and management company CBL & Associates.
Online competition isn't the only reason retailers are opening early. Thanksgiving falls late on the calendar this year, nearly a week later than usual. That has shortened what is typically regarded as the prime Christmas shopping season.
Retailers typically don't truly generate positive cashflow until the holiday season, when their balance sheets go from being in the red to being in the black -- hence the term "Black Friday" -- and need every hour of shopping time they can get their hands on, Faucette said.
"Thanksgiving is as late in November as it can possibly be," Faucette said."We're not telling people that they have to go shopping, we're just inviting them to have that choice."
But not everyone has a choice. Retail workers and some smaller stores are caught in the middle, forced to surrender what was once one of their most treasured family holidays of the year in order to keep up with the competition. Stores at CBL malls like Hamilton Place and Northgate Mall can either open at 8 p.m. or later at midnight, but don't have the option to skip the late-night shopping celebrations and simply open for business on Friday like usual.
Jason Kirk, a sales associate for a Verizon store at Hamilton Place Mall, said the change puts many of his fellow workers in an awkward situation.
"It can be a raw deal, because some of my co-workers have family plans," he said. "But we have to do something to stay competitive."
Kirk volunteered to work on Thanksgiving, since he plans to celebrate the holiday on Saturday with family members in South Carolina. Others are giving up precious time with their children or loved ones to feed the country's appetite for consumption.
"The pay is good for working a holiday, but I would rather be at home with my children and family," said Amanda Ryburn, who is working from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving. "I have five children, one of which is [experiencing] his first Thanksgiving. I'm going to miss it just because of corporate greed."
Both brick and mortar as well as online retailers expect a slight bump in sales this year. The National Retail Federation projects holiday sales for the final two month of the year will be up 3.9 percent this year, up from the 3.5 percent holiday season sales growth last year. This year's sales gains also are projected to be above the 10-year average annual sales gain of 3.3 percent, according to economists for the National Retail Federation.
Though the lines will be a little longer and revenue a little higher this year, some shoppers say they're boycotting the movement to replace Thanksgiving with sale-seeking.
"I think it is despicable that the holidays have degraded into the 'shopping season,'" said Kristen Maxwell, a nurse. "There is no respect for family or the holidays anymore."
That's a sentiment echoed by dozens of consumers reached by the Times Free Press, who appreciate the deals but don't want to be part of a system that they say trivializes a special day.
"The deals can sometimes be enticing, but never enough to lure me out into hectic crowds, and never enough to willingly undermine retail workers' ability to spend time with their families and loved ones," wrote Scott Hooker, who does most of his shopping in December.
Economists expect shoppers to open their wallets a bit more this year than last as the 3-year-old recovery picks up steam. But with unemployment in Chattanooga still hovering around 8 percent, many shoppers will still be looking for bargains.
Consumer sentiment and buyers' financial standing have been buoyed this year by gains in home values and stock prices. Dr. William Fox, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee, says this so-called "wealth effect" should encourage more buying.
"Unemployment is still historically high and most workers haven't had big wage gains this year," he said. "But the balance sheet for most households has improved and people will feel more confident by the strong gains we've seen in the price of their homes and the increases in the stock market."
Despite a slight dip in October, home prices in Chattanooga are still up 2.6 percent this year, rising to an average $168,611 so far this year, up from $164,347 in the first 10 months of 2012, according to the Greater Chattanooga Association of Realtors. Major stock indices are all up by double digit amounts so far this year.
Even without Thanksgiving Day or Black Friday sales, retailers are always looking for new ways to bring customers into the store. There's Small Business Saturday, in which shoppers are encouraged to frequent local retailers in their community. Monday has become Cyber Monday, when online retailers offer eye-popping deals to those with quick clicking fingers.
Midnight sales and long hours have long been a U.S. retail tradition, some shoppers and retail workers say. So what's the big deal if Thanksgiving turns into a shopping day, too?
"It was tough going out at midnight last year, but always worth the deals," said Casey Knox, a marketing guru who is excited about the Thanksgiving sales and is ready to line up, list in hand. "Game on!"
Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at email@example.com or 423-757-6315. Staff writer Dave Flessner contributed to this report.