Toys R Us 88-Hour Shopping Marathon — Because Sometimes You Need a Furby at 3 A.M.

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Sure, holiday shopping started months ago, and consumers have shown a keen willingness to drop big bucks shopping online throughout the entire season. Nonetheless, the last-minute shopping scene is likely to quite traditional—fast, furious, and in actual stores.

One of the key advantages e-retail has over brick-and-mortar is that consumers never have to wait around for some store to physically open its doors. They can shop online at any hour of the day or night.

At least during the big shopping weekend before Christmas of 2012, shoppers will also be able to browse real brick-and-mortar Macy’s and Toys R Us locations at any hour of night or day—with the obvious added advantage that when you buy in an actual store, there’s no waiting around for merchandise to arrive via Fedex or UPS. Macy’s announced last week that its stores would host a sale for 48 hours in a row during the weekend before Christmas. Stores will open at 7 a.m. on Friday, December 21, for a sale that lasts straight through to 7 a.m. on Sunday, December 23. What happens after that? Most stores will just continue on and stay open until midnight on the 23rd (so, 65 hours in a row). The sale will technically end on Sunday morning, but it’s a safe bet that a new lineup of deals and discounted merchandise will serve as a replacement.

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More recently, Toys R Us has upped the ante with stores that won’t close for 88 consecutive hours, running from 6 a.m. on Friday, December 21, until 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve. Believe it or not, Toys R Us is actually scaling back its last-minute hours by keeping them at “only” 88 consecutive hours. The toy store giant’s locations were open for 112 hours in a row during the pre-Christmas 2011 period. To some extent, Macy’s is also downsizing its last-minute hours—for the peak Christmas shopping period in 2011, 14 of its locations were open for 83 consecutive hours.

Besides insomniacs and desperate procrastinators, who is the target market for the frenzied 24/7 shopping atmosphere on the weekend before Christmas? The answer could be the same people who were drawn to the excitement of Black Friday. Britt Beemer, chairman of America’s Research Group, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he expects stores to “dangle some juicy specials to draw in shoppers during that weekend,” and many shoppers will operate with the assumption that if a store is open at 4 a.m., something extra special must be going on:

“If you can turn it into a Black Friday event, you win,” he said.

Many retailers are offering extended (if not 24/7) hours in the weeks before Christmas, and marathon last-minute hours may one day become as expected as it is for major stores to be open on Thanksgiving night. You can be assured that all stores are watching how the last-minute strategies of Toys R Us and Macy’s fare, according to Businessweek:

“If it works well for Macy’s, I can guarantee it will be a trend next year,” says Dan Butler, vice president for merchandising and retail at the National Retail Federation.

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From the shopper’s point of view, there’s something to do said for hitting a store on a Saturday at 3 a.m. rather than 3 p.m. In the wee hours, the aisles should certainly be less crowded. On the other hand, while the phrase “nothing good happens after midnight” is usually applied to teenagers and people in bars, it’s probably applicable here as well. Figuring out whether a “Buy One, Get One” deal with an extra 20% off actually represents a decent value is hard enough in the middle of the day. Imagine how difficult it’ll be to make sense of such marketing mumbo jumbo in the middle of the night.