Is Thanksgiving Day becoming the new Black Friday?

Sports Authority is open from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. K-mart is open for 14 hours. The Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic are opening some stores, as is Disney.

And even diehard Black Friday retailers, such as Target, Wal-Mart and Toys-R-Us, are promoting online sales in the heart of turkey day.

The dilution of what is traditionally the biggest shopping day of the year points to a larger theme all stores are struggling with this year: To get recession-plagued consumers to open their wallets whenever and wherever they can. So retailers have been pulling out Black Friday ruses -- from "Doorbuster" deals to morning-only specials -- for weeks now.

"We don't have Black Friday anymore; we have gray Friday. It's been spread out, dulled down, diluted," said national retail expert Marshal Cohen. "It's not any less important of a retail holiday. But it's a less impactful one."

Industry expert Love Goel pointed to the book-price battle that started in October between Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp. then jumped into the fray on the price of books expected to be top sellers.

"Most consumers have been trained to wait for the big sales closer to Christmas," said Goel, of GVG Capital Group in Minnetonka. "The sales of consumer electronics, toys and books -- key gift items -- started a month before Thanksgiving" this year.

Sears jumped in on the early start, offering what it dubbed weekly "Black Friday Now" deals that started Oct. 31 and will run every Saturday morning through Christmas. The retailer said it was responding to customers who "don't enjoy the thrill of hitting the stores at 4 a.m. on the day after Thanksgiving for amazing deals."

But at least one expert said the importance of Black Friday and the dedication of those early morning shoppers can't be underplayed.

"The people who want that big-ticket item know that the best deals are going to be on Black Friday. If they want to get that TV set at a great price, they have to be in front of a store between 3 and 3:30 a.m. if they want a shot at it," said Britt Beemer of America's Research Group.

And with consumers worried about the economy, they're on a mission for a bargain. "This year, people will come in, get the deal and walk out. There won't be as much browsing."

Black Thursday?

Two or three years ago, retailers would have said they would "absolutely not" open on Thanksgiving, said Cohen. "'We'll never touch that day. We want the people who work for us to enjoy their family.'"

But this year, with 10.2 percent of Americans unemployed, and the consumers who power 70 percent of the American economy worried about their finances and their jobs, nothing is sacred. "Retailers are all sitting there saying, 'If we're not going to have a great year, we better darn well try to have as good a one as we possibly can. And if that means opening up with limited staff on the holidays or going with staff sales two weeks before Black Friday, well, we're going to do it,'" said Cohen. "We're going to try everything."

Sports Authority's ads tell consumers: "Beat the rush and get stuffed" on Thanksgiving Day. It's even throwing in 25 percent off all purchases. Old Navy is giving away Rock Band guitars, with the purchase of the video game, at least for early birds.

Traditionally, many stores wouldn't even have holiday decorations up until Thanksgiving Day, said David Brennan of the Center for Retailing Excellence at the University of St. Thomas.

"We've had an increasing amount of Christmas creep," he said. "It has accelerated during this Great Recession. Everyone is trying to get a leg up on everyone else."

Retailers are pushing the online sales -- especially on Thursday -- harder this year. And most are offering free shipping.

Wal-Mart is offering nearly 50 online-only specials. Target is advertising its first-ever "Thanksgiving Day-only sales that will be gone Friday."

"It's going to be: Go to the computer, then put the turkey in," said Cohen.

Does that violate the spirit of Thanksgiving? At least two shoppers at the Macy's in downtown Minneapolis said Wednesday that they have no plans to shop on Thanksgiving.

"I would probably not go, but it's a good option" for people who want to get an early start, said Carrie Karssen of New Hope, who had her two children with her in a stroller. Laura Eggenberger, who was in Macy's to see the eighth-floor auditorium show, said she'd rather spend time with family on Thanksgiving.

Karssen said she plans to scour the ads Thursday night and head out early to do some Black Friday shopping, which she does most years. Eggenberger, of Circle Pines, is taking a pass. "I usually avoid going out. It's too chaotic."

Get them in the door

Promoting online sales makes sense, because it doesn't require the full staffs of bricks and mortar stores.

"The costs are minimal," said Akshay Rao, a University of Minnesota Carlson School marketing professor. And not everyone likes to line up outside Best Buy in the wee hours of the morning. "It's a good opportunity for people to go online and make purchases quickly."

Even if Black Friday has been diluted, the day is still incredibly important to retailers. Cohen called it the "Super Bowl of shopping."

In five of the past six years, it has ranked as the top sales day of the holiday season, according to ShopperTrak's National Retail Traffic Index. Historically, it was the day many retailers' bottom lines turned profitable, or from red to black, hence the name.

But even if retailers are offering earlier sales, getting customers in the door on Friday is still important. Best Buy is giving "mystery gift cards" in amounts from $5 to $25 to the first 50 people in line Friday morning at 25 stores around the country, including the Mall of America store. One card at each store will be worth $100. Target is giving $10 gift cards to those who spend $100 or more in stores.

And many deals are reserved for store customers only.

With such a smorgasbord of offers being laid out for consumers essentially around the clock, what advice does Rao have for consumers wondering where to begin this year?

His timeless answer: "They need to develop a budget and stick to it."

Suzanne Ziegler • 612-673-1707