One of the biggest stories to emerge this holiday shopping season is the expansion of Black Friday. In years past, retailers pushed the envelope by opening at 4 a.m., or even 3 a.m. the morning (if you want to call it that) after Thanksgiving. That’s just not cutting it this year, when many stores will open their doors to Black Friday shoppers at midnight, or, in the case of Walmart, at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving night.
Toys R Us, which opened at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving night of last year, decided it was necessary to open an hour earlier, at 9 p.m. on Turkey Day 2011. Most Toys R Us stores will remain open until 11 p.m. on Black Friday, making for a 26-hour shopping marathon.
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By some accounts, there’s a sizable portion of consumers who are put off by the constant expansion of the holiday shopping season, in which Black Friday not only now starts on Thursday, but weeks before at the beginning of November, and in which back-to-school and Christmas shopping occur simultaneously.
Store employees aren’t happy about the idea of having to go to work on a national holiday either; an online petition is even circulating to get Target to push its midnight opening back to 5 a.m. the following morning.
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What’s with the backlash by consumers and workers against stores being open on a national holiday? Is it a smart move for retailers to start sales so early? Is it necessary? And, considering that there’s an obvious alternative to shopping in stores—shopping at store websites, where nearly all of the same merchandise is available at the same price—is there any point opening on a day many Americans feel is sacred?
The revolt by Target workers has been reported everywhere from CNN to USA Today to the Baltimore Sun. The response from Target is basically that it didn’t want to open on midnight on Thanksgiving night. Instead, the retailer was simply responding to the desires of its customers: Shoppers wanted them to open earlier, and so it obliged. A statement released by Target read:
We have heard from our guests that they want to shop Target following their Thanksgiving celebrations rather than only having the option of getting up in the middle of the night. By opening at midnight, we are making it easier than ever to deliver on our guests wants and needs.
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Similarly, a New York Times story from last week quoted Best Buy’s CEO saying, “I feel terrible” about opening on Thanksgiving night at midnight, but that he had no choice. This is what shoppers want, retailers are saying, and stores are just trying to make customers happy.
But is this what consumers want? Based on the shoppers and store employees quoted in the coverage of the Black Midnight or Black Thursday trend, the answer is no. Then again, the vast majority of shoppers aren’t interested in shopping during the chaos of Black Friday either: A poll from last year revealed that less than one-quarter of consumers actually planned on shopping that day.
Retailers don’t need to convince all shoppers, or even a majority of shoppers, that it’s a good idea to hit the stores a few hours after finishing the turkey on Thanksgiving night. All retailers have to do is attract a decent number of deal-crazed consumers into cutting their leisurely holiday short to head off to the stores. Shoppers are already accustomed to doing some nutty things on Black Friday, so it doesn’t seem much of a stretch to think that plenty of consumers will do likewise the night before—national holiday or not.
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It’s been said that Thanksgiving should be sacred. It’s also been said that shopping is the true American religion. We’ll see which of these ideas holds up best on Thanksgiving night. Will shoppers show up at stores? I tend to side with the opinion of John Long, a retail strategist at Kurt Salmon who told USA Today:
“My guess, based on past trends, is we’ll see massive amounts of consumers in stores, even at these earlier hours,” he says. “If you think about it, 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. are more convenient than 4 a.m.”
Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.