NEW YORK Add this to the list of things some people are thankful for: stores open on Thanksgiving Day. That's how Janet Guerrero, 24, felt when shopping on Thursday afternoon at a Wal-Mart in Westbury, Long Island, because she had nothing to wear to dinner. "It's an emergency," she said.
This year, Target Corp has joined Wal-Mart and Gap Inc in being open at least part of the day, and some retailers will be open throughout the day, a trend that began to take hold in 2011.
Walmart's U.S. discount stores, which have been open on Thanksgiving Day since 1988, will offer some "Black Friday" deals at 8 p.m. local time and special deals on some electronics at 10 p.m. Target has moved its opening from midnight to 9 p.m. on Thursday and Toys R Us is opening at 8 p.m.
"It's a recognition that retailers need to be more aggressive and want to show their physical stores are important," Moody's senior analyst Charles O'Shea said.
While he didn't see enormous crowds out in Vauxhall, New Jersey, he did see about 15 people lined up already at a Best Buy, which opens at midnight. At a Target in Westbury, only two lone shoppers were in line for a 9 p.m. opening. Still, for retailers, any crowd could make the effort worth it.
"It's a finite pie - if you can get a bit more by being open, then do it," O'Shea said.
Other retailers, such as J.C. Penney Co Inc, are holding out and will not open until Friday morning, so shoppers trying to get all the deals will need a lot of stamina.
"The retailers are taking what was a very plannable sport that was four or five hours where you can get things done and turned it into a marathon," Trutina Financial Chief Investment Officer Patty Edwards said. "I think the retailers have diluted the sport."
Even some higher-end retailers had select stores open on Thursday. But crowds were thin at the flagship Lord & Taylor on 5th Avenue, where workers voluntarily signed up for holiday shifts for an extra compensation day and holiday pay.
At other stores, workers were not so happy to have early openings encroach on their Thanksgivings. A petition asking Target to "save Thanksgiving" had 371,606 supporters as of Thursday afternoon.
But shopper Pamela Herman, 54, who works in marketing at Mt. Sinai hospital, was drawn in by the extra discount of 50 percent on already reduced items and said she would not have bothered to come in without the sale.
Traditionally, retailers enticed shoppers with "doorbuster" deals early Friday morning. Then they shifted to midnight following Thanksgiving. But many shoppers lured into stores by earlier openings on Thursday may just be window shopping.
More than 50 percent of consumers will do some form of "showrooming" during the Black Friday weekend, said Kevin Sterneckert, vice president of retail research at Gartner Group.
"They will buy things because they looked at it in the store. They will touch and feel what they are interested in and then buy it online on Monday, either from the same retailer or a different online retailer," Sterneckert said.
At the Kmart on 34th Street in Manhattan, Charles Montague, a 55-year-old mover, was browsing the aisles just to kill time. "I don't holiday shop," he said emphatically. "I buy stuff all year long, not during some man-made holiday."
That window shopping has not put a crimp into online sales, however. Online Thanksgiving 2012 sales are already up 16.4 percent over Thanksgiving 2011 for the same period, which measured through 3 p.m. EST (2000 GMT), according to IBM.
THE RESULTS MATTER
The stakes are high for U.S. retailers, which can earn more than a third of their annual sales in the holiday season. Investors hope holiday sales will help retail stocks cap a strong year. The Standard & Poor's retail index is up almost 27 percent this year, compared with a 10.6 percent increase for the broader S&P 500.
The National Retail Federation, an industry trade group, forecast a 4.1 percent increase in retail sales during the November-December holiday period this year, down from the 5.6 percent increase seen in 2011.
Consumers heading into the holiday shopping season remain worried about high unemployment and possible tax increases and government spending cuts in 2013. Also, lasting effects of Sandy, the storm that lashed the densely populated East Coast in late October, could cut into how much shoppers can spend on the holidays.
According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, two-thirds of shoppers said they were planning to spend the same amount as last year or were unsure about spending plans, while 21 percent intend to spend less and 11 percent plan to spend more.
"My family decided not to buy (Chanukah) presents this year - only for the kids. It's too expensive," said graduate student Danielle Slade, 29, from Jericho, Long Island.
(Reporting by Phil Wahba and Beth Pinsker Gladstone in New York; Additional reporting by Brad Dorfman and Nivedita Bhattacharjee in Chicago, Jessica Wohl in New York, and Ilaina Jonas in Westbury, New York; Editing by David Gregorio and Dale Hudson)