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On Thanksgiving, it'll be dine-and-dash as stores open earlier

Skip the second helpings.

It used to be just called Thanksgiving. Now the day is increasingly called Black Friday Eve or Black Thursday, as retailers double down on early opening hours for the kickoff of the holiday shopping season.

This Thanksgiving, some retailers, including the world’s largest, are opening earlier than ever, before the dishes are even cleared from the table.

“This is actually something we’ve seen really take off with consumers in recent years,” said Kathy Grannis, spokeswoman at the National Retail Federation. Last year, 24 percent of shoppers said they were at a store at midnight on Black Friday. Just two years earlier, Grannis said, that number was only 9 percent.

Wal-Mart will start the first of three Black Friday sales at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving evening, followed by 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. Last year, Wal-Mart opened at 10 p.m. Thanksgiving night."Our customers told us that they loved our Thanksgiving event earlier last year and asked for it again," said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Sarah Spencer. "Our highest customer traffic was during the 10 p.m. hour."

Sears is opening its stores at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving, too.  Last year, it opened at 4 a.m. on Black Friday. Like Wal-Mart, it is spacing out its sales: one at the opening, the second at 4 a.m. on Friday. Kmart stores will be open on Thanksgiving Day from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m., then will close and reopen from 8 p.m. to 3 a.m. They will reopen for a second time at 5 a.m. on Black Friday.

Macy’s, Best Buy and Kohl’s all will open at midnight this year.

Target, J.C. Penney and Toys “R” Us haven’t announced when they will open their stores for Black Friday. Last year, Target was one of many retailers that opened at midnight. Penney opened its doors at 4 a.m., while Toys “R” Us was an early adopter of the ultra-early trend, opening at 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving night.

Some fans posted complaints to Wal-Mart’s Facebook page in response to the news of the Thanksgiving night sales, but analysts say the payoff prompts companies to risk the backlash.

Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst at NPD Group, said that last year, stores that extended their hours to open earlier saw an average 22 percent increase in sales. So, shoppers might complain about the sales encroaching on Thanksgiving dinner, but they’re still turning out to buy things anyway.

“It’s proved to be a very important strategy,” he said. “Retailers are clearly willing to take on whatever wrath they may get by breaking tradition.”

“It helps them manage their traffic flow better,” said Barbara Wyckoff, an analyst with CLSA/Credit Agricole Securities (USA). By expanding the shopping window and staggering sales times, retailers like Wal-Mart are trying to avoid being overwhelmed with a wave of shoppers all at once, which contributes to a poor customer experience.

While it may give traditionalists heartburn, analysts say Black Friday Eve isn’t going away.“This will continue as far as they can push it,” Wyckoff said. “I think it’s going to continue to be earlier and earlier.”

What people are actually buying on Black Friday is also good for retailers. “What we learned last year is a lot of that early business is self-purchase and impulse buys,” Cohen said. “It creates a whole new dynamic of retail opportunity.”

The one thing that could put a halt to stores’ temporal arms race would be a resurgent economy.

“We didn’t see these types of promotions before 2008 and 2009,” Grannis said. “If we’re no longer at a point where people are looking for extreme discounts... and they’re really back to just looking for great gift ideas, there could be a shift in how many people want to be out there at midnight.”