By Steve Karnowski, Margery Beck and Anne D'Innocenzio
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Count your blessings, then get to work.
That may be Thanksgiving for more retail workers this year, as stores desperate to pull in buyers on the first weekend of the holiday shopping season push their openings earlier and earlier. Unhappy workers who say it ruins their Thanksgiving celebrations are trying to persuade companies to back off, but retailers say they're stuck: It's what customers want.
Reporting to work at 11 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day ruins what is supposed to be a day spent with family, said Anthony Hardwick, who works part-time at a Target store in Omaha corralling carts. His online petition against Target Corp.'s plan to open at midnight on Thursday had drawn more than 100,000 signatures from retail workers and the public by Wednesday, about two weeks after he launched it.
"The folks that work at Target are going to be working all night overnight on one of the most hectic retail days of the holidays," Hardwick said, "they need to be well-rested for that, so they have to miss out on Thanksgiving if they're going to be working overnight."
Merchants are competing for shoppers on a weekend that can be critical for their annual sales and profits, and a growing number fear opening at 4 a.m. or 5 a.m., as they have in recent years, may be too late in this challenging economy. More than a decade ago, major retailers used to open their doors around 6 a.m. on Black Friday, but over the past five years they started to move that up to as early as 3 a.m.
A handful started limited testing of midnight openings several years ago. But midnight openings have proliferated this year, with Target Corp., Best Buy Co., Kohl's Corp. and Bon-Ton Stores Inc. all announcing 12 a.m. openings for the first time. Macy's, which opened eight stores at midnight last year, is opening all of its 800-plus Macy's stores nationwide at that time this year.
Retailers say they're responding to consumer demand for an ever-earlier start to the holiday shopping season. A National Retail Federation survey last year shows that the number of shoppers who flocked to stores opening at midnight following the Thanksgiving feast tripled in 2010 from 2009.
"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," said Molly Snyder, a spokeswoman for Minneapolis-based Target.
Snyder disputed that Hardwick was scheduled to work on Black Friday; Hardwick insisted that he was.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, will be offering discounts on toys, home accessories and clothing starting at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving. The Bentonville, Ark.-based discounter, whose supercenters already operate around the clock, opened most of its other stores by midnight on Thanksgiving evening last year. Duncan MacNaughton, chief merchandising officer at Wal-Mart's U.S. division, said customers said they would rather stay up late to shop than get up early.
Toys R Us, which opened on Thanksgiving Day for the first time last year, plans to open an hour earlier at 9 p.m. Gap Inc. will open nearly 1,000 stores across its Banana Republic, Old Navy and namesake stores on Thanksgiving in the U.S. That's about 10 percent more than a year ago, according to Gap spokeswoman Louise Callagy.
Bucking the trend, Sears Holding Corp., which opened its Sears stores on Thanksgiving for the first time last year, is going back to 4 a.m. Friday this year. Its Kmart stores, however, will be open on Thanksgiving Day as they have been since 1991, spokesman Tom Aiello said. J.C. Penney Co. is also another holdout, sticking with its regular 4 a.m. opening on Black Friday.
People in several fields - even retail - have traditionally had to work on Thanksgiving, said Ellen Davis, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation. She noted that many drugstores and food stores remain open on the holiday. But it seems to be the midnight openings that shifted sentiment toward keeping Thanksgiving Day itself out of the fray - aided by the rise of social media, which have helped spread the word.
"I think a lot of people, with these movements like Occupy Wall Street, I think a lot of people are getting tired of wealthier people taking advantage of the middle class and poorer people," said John Stankus, a stocker at the Target store in Cypress, Calif. who signed Hardwick's petition.
"It's their greed and their wanting to take advantage of us - because they're not missing their Thanksgiving dinner."
Stankus, 22, said his extended family gets together only once a year, so he'll miss the chance to see relatives who probably won't arrive at his aunt's home before he has to leave to get enough sleep before starting work around 11 p.m. on Thanksgiving night.
"I'll just get the crumbs and the leftovers they leave behind, but I won't get any turkey at all and won't get time to spend with my family," he said. Stankus said he had considered not showing up and taking the consequences.
Hardwick said that's typical of the kind of support he's heard from colleagues, including some who are afraid to sign because they fear losing their jobs.
Other retail workers said they're just glad to be employed.
Mary Huskey, who has worked at a Wal-Mart in suburban St. Louis for 21 years, said most retail employees know they're going to have to work on holidays, especially Black Friday. She plans to have Thanksgiving dinner with her family early in the day, catch a little rest and then ring up sales from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.
"Retail is retail. People want to shop, and if they want to shop, we have to be there for them," Huskey said. "It's a living, and you know that when you go into it. I'm just thankful that I have a place to work, unlike other people that don't have a job."
It's not just big box merchandisers that will be open Thanksgiving. Anneliese Curtis Place said she'll be selling cars at a Toyota dealer in Santa Barbara, Calif., until 3 p.m. on both Thanksgiving and Black Friday. The dealer opens every Thanksgiving, she said, partly because there are a lot of Jehovah's Witnesses in the area who don't celebrate the holidays. She anticipates they'll sell "quite a few" cars next Thursday.
"My family's been really flexible about working around my schedule," Place said. "I'm glad because a job is pretty important these days."
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