Shoppers camped out since Monday as retailers push openings earlier than ever

Shoppers camped out since Monday as retailers push openings earlier than ever

November 24th, 2011 by Carey O'Neil in News

Austin Bynum, obscured, left, and David Caldwell re-cover their tents Tuesday after wind blew the plastic off in front of the Best Buy on Gunbarrel Road. Several people are camped out for Black Friday sales.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

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STORE OPENINGS

Kmart: 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. today, 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday

Walmart: Open all day Thanksgiving; bargain sales start at 10 p.m. and continue Friday

Toys R Us: Opens at 9 p.m. tonight

Target: Midnight to 11 p.m. Friday

Kohl's: Midnight to midnight Friday

Best Buy: Midnight to 10 p.m. Friday

Sears: 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday

Belk: 3 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday

Hamilton Place mall: 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday

Northgate Mall: 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday

Bradley Square Mall: Some stores opening at midnight, all stores open 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Walnut Square Mall: 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday

HOLIDAY PROJECTIONS

Black Friday shoppers: 81 million

Shoppers through the weekend: 152 million

Total holiday sales: $465.6 billion

Sales per shopper: $718.98

Sources: National Retail Federation, International Council of Shopping Centers

David Caldwell has braved thunderstorms and near-freezing temperatures since Monday, and at midnight he'll finally get the TV he's waited days for.

Caldwell and about five others slept in tents at the door of the Gunbarrel Road Best Buy all week to make sure they were the first in line to buy a limited quantity of 42-inch Sharp HDTVs for $200: a $450 savings off the list price.

"We're determined to get our TVs," he said. "You have to want that TV real bad."

Despite the sometimes-awful weather, Caldwell's week has been entertaining. He brought a generator along and kept it running in the back of his pickup truck, powering a TV and Xbox 360 in his tent where he and his buds sat playing video games.

He's allowed to step out of line for four hours at a time, so long as someone's holding his spot, but his family plans to join him today for the Thanksgiving meal.

Best Buy closes on Thanksgiving, so the family should more or less have the parking lot to themselves. But when midnight rolls around, they'll likely have to clear out or be trampled by the mob of shoppers hunting Back Friday doorbuster deals.

Best Buy and most other big-box retailers pushed their opening times back to midnight Thursday. For most of these stores, that's their earliest opening ever.

In the past few years, the number of shoppers who say they're willing to hit stores at midnight has tripled to about 13.7 million, according to the National Retail Federation. For years, deal hunters have lined up waiting for stores to open, and this year several retailers figured they might as well just be invited inside to start shopping.

Grabbing shoppers

Competition motivated some stores to set the early hours. Midnight openings are largely uncharted territory, and no shop wants to lose business because it wasn't open.

"Usually when we see one do it, the others follow suit. In this market, the retailers have to be competitive," said Kathy Grannis of the National Retail Federation. "There's little chance for a missed opportunity."

So tonight and Friday will be a test run for most. If Calhoun Premium Outlets' history of profitable midnight openings is any indication, those tests have a good chance at success.

Friday will be the fifth Black Friday that the Calhoun, Ga., outlet mall has allowed its stores to open at midnight, said Michele Rothstein, senior vice president of marketing for owner Premium Outlets. This year, they're pushing openings even further back and allowing stores to start selling at 9 tonight.

"Merchants are deciding what they want to do. If they want to open at 9, great. If they say it's not really for us, that's fine, too," she said. "No matter what time you open, shoppers show up early."

The earlier a store opens, the more likely it is that consumers will start their Black Friday odyssey there to cross off most of their shopping list, Rothstein said.

But pushing the opening too far back into Thanksgiving can be more trouble than it's worth. Last year, Sears was open from 7 a.m. till noon on Thanksgiving, then opened again at 4 a.m. the next day. Stores saw some traffic, according to Division Vice President Tom Aiello, but not enough to warrant a repeat this year.

"Basically the feedback was no," he said. "There was a resounding amount of feedback that said we want to keep Thanksgiving as a holiday."

So Sears won't open until 4 a.m. Friday. Aiello expects that late opening (if you can call 4 a.m. late) will draw customers reaching the end of their shopping sprees, offering them a fully-stocked set of merchandise and doorbuster deals to finish off their lists.

After the store's experience last year, Sears isn't feeling pressure from its competitors' early openings.

"When you've got this pack mentality, what comes second is what the customer actually wants," he said. "Nothing that we have tells us that customers want to get up at midnight."

But Rothstein said the Calhoun outlet mall has seen increased traffic every year and expects those Black Friday numbers to rise without cutting into weekend sales.

"We've asked ourselves that question, 'Are we just spreading out the same shopper?'" Rothstein said. "But every year our traffic counts are higher."

National trend

Those increases reflect a national trend. According to the International Council of Shopping Centers, 34 percent of consumers, or 81 million people, plan to shop Black Friday, compared to 31 percent the year before. In 2009, just over a fourth of consumers planned to head out.

Over the entire weekend, the National Retail Federation expects up to 152 million shoppers, compared to 138 million in 2010.

"In an economic downturn, it's normal to see people head out on Black Friday in droves because they're very bargain-focused," Grannis said.

Those shoppers will make Friday the biggest day of the year for local malls, according to Katie Reinsmidt, spokeswoman for Hamilton Place and Northgate Mall owners CBL & Associates Properties Inc. With 50,000 shoppers expected at Hamilton Place alone, store employees will park off site and ride a shuttle into work to accommodate all the cars.

"It's a lot to accommodate and a lot that goes into it," she said. "But we definitely want everybody."