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Black Friday on Thursday? Pick your side

Now that the Black Friday holiday shopping extravaganza has shifted its hoopla to Thanksgiving, consumers are divided into two camps: those who shop and those who sneer at those who shop.

Retailers have clearly picked sides.

Some are trumpeting their choice to stay closed on the holiday, releasing statements about putting people over profits and making hay of consumer goodwill.

Other retailers have taken the opposite tack. Not only are they opening doors before the turkey cools, they’re shouting it from the rooftops, hoping to convince consumers that their Thanksgiving retail event is the biggest, craziest blowout of them all.

Among those opting to stay closed Thursday is GameStop. It publicized its good deed with a news release in which it couldn’t resist tweaking its competitors.

“We know this is in stark contrast to what many other retailers are doing, but we are taking a stance to protect family time during this important holiday,” said Mike Buskey, president of U.S. stores for the national video game retailer.

In the next sentence of the news release, GameStop reminded customers that they can shop its company anytime – including Thanksgiving – on the company’s website.

MacSolutions Plus, an Apple retailer in Eastern Hills Mall, will also be closed on the holiday. But owner Garret Cleversley isn’t looking for any kind of recognition. He said he just wants to be able to spend the day with his family and for his employees to be able to do the same.

Cleversley said it’s more important to him that his nine employees enjoy the holiday with their loved ones than it is to add an extra day’s sales to the company’s coffers.

“There are only three days a year that people in retail get the day off,” he said. “I’m not going to take that away.”

Social media are teeming with calls to “Save Thanksgiving” and boycott shopping on the holiday. An “I pledge not to shop on Thanksgiving” button has gone viral, and lists of retailers that will be closed on the holiday has been shared hundreds of thousands of times.

But what consumers say they want and what they actually do are two different things. After all, stores wouldn’t open if no one showed up to shop.

For all the backlash, consumers shopped in droves last year, spending more than $1 billion on Thanksgiving Day.

Indeed, retailers said they open their doors on Thanksgiving in response to consumer demand. Staying closed wouldn’t do well to serve consumers who want to spend their holiday evening shopping.

Richard Barry, an executive vice president and global chief merchandising officer for Toys R Us, said the company got great feedback from customers who shopped in the store last Thanksgiving, many of whom visited together with their families.

“It’s one of the biggest shopping days of the year, so it’s very important as a specialty toy retailer,” Barry said. “You have to play on the biggest days.”

Over the years, big-box retailers opened their doors earlier and earlier on Black Friday in order to capture more sales. Those early opening hours eventually crept into Thanksgiving, as retailers competed to be the first chain open each year. Analysts predicted that retailers would continue on this way, opening earlier and earlier until they were open 24 hours on Thanksgiving.

But there are signs that other retailers have maxed out the benefits of opening ever earlier. Opening hours are holding steady, with most retailers keeping the same Thanksgiving hours as last year. Toys R Us, for example, will open at 5 p.m. again this year instead of rushing to open earlier. The store pushed its opening from midnight on Thanksgiving in 2009 to 10 p.m. the next year, until finally bumping it up to 5 p.m. in 2014. The shift appears to have halted – at least for now.

“We evaluate our hours every year,” Barry said.

No matter where retailers side on the issue, one thing is undeniable: Black Friday has changed. It is no longer a one-day event filled with spectacular deals and populated by urgent consumers. It has become a weeklong event with watered-down deals and dulled consumer sentiment, said Arun Lakshmanan, an assistant marketing professor at the University at Buffalo School of Management.

The magic of Black Friday, he said, trades on exclusivity. Those getting up early on Black Friday in years past felt a thrill being part of an exclusive crowd of shoppers. But retailers started stretching out the Black Friday hype, so more customers could get in on the action.

That was when Black Friday started losing steam, he said. “The fear of missing out was what made Black Friday a cultural event,” Lakshmanan said. “You can’t have it both ways.”

As a result, Black Friday sales were down by 6.8 percent last year, according to Shoppertrak, a retail analytics firm. Over Thanksgiving weekend as a whole, sales dropped by 11 percent in 2014.

There are still deals to be had on Black Friday, but prices are just as good or better on other days, and consumers are feeling overwhelmed as to where to find them, Lakshmanan said.

Retailers are just as overwhelmed trying to get their message heard above the clamor. For many, Lakshmanan said, it’s beginning to look as if the best way to stand out from the crowd in the future may be to sit Thanksgiving out.

“The pendulum,” he said, “may start to swing the other way.”