This Thanksgiving, retailers aren't waiting for Friday to arrive to invite Black Friday shoppers into their stores.
Led by Target and Wal-Mart, major retailers have announced plans to open their doors as early as 8 p.m., in an ongoing quest to grab shoppers' attention and get the holiday shopping season off to a strong start.
The ever-earlier openings have sparked a debate over whether there should be a limit in the gradual blurring of America's traditional day of thanks and its traditional day of unrestrained bargain hunting.
"Thanksgiving used to be the palate cleanser from commercialism," said retail brand analyst Beth Perro-Jarvis at Ginger Consulting in Minneapolis.
Last year, hundreds of thousands of shoppers signed petitions to protest the creep into Thanksgiving Day. That was when many stores opened at midnight.
But plenty of shoppers showed up in the middle of the night, and now retailers are pushing up the store openings even more. Minneapolis-based Target, for example, is opening at 9 p.m., despite nearly 200,000 signatures protesting it at Change.org.
Some shoppers think the earlier hours are more convenient.
Wendy Marson of River Falls, Wis., said lots of nurses, police officers, firefighters and gas station attendants already work on the holiday. The fact that Wal-Mart, Target and other retailers are opening earlier this year doesn't faze her.
"I'd rather shop at 9 p.m. than 3 a.m.," Marson said. "It's not realistic for the holiday to be sacrosanct."
Few expect retailers to back off. For one thing, they are contending with online competition that enables shoppers to make purchases whenever they want, holiday or not.
Also, holiday sales are expected to rise a modest 3.8 percent this year, according to Wells Fargo, less than last year's 5.7 percent increase.
Many retail analysts say earlier holiday hours are inevitable as retailers scramble in the never-ending quest to squeeze more dollars from shoppers.
"Wal-Mart and Target will continue to play a competitive game of who can open the earliest," said Burt Flickinger, president at Strategic Resource Group in New York City.
"Maybe it will be 4 p.m. in 2013 and noon in 2014."
One person who will not be elbowing her way to a cheap, flat-screen TV on Thanksgiving Day is Rachelle Dahl of Lakeville, no matter how good the deal.
She doesn't like the idea that retail workers who used to have Thanksgiving off now have to work.
"This is an intrusion on what should be a time for families to be together and give thanks," she said.
Others counter that in a tight economy, employees may welcome the chance to get time and a half. Target employees who work on Thanksgiving and early hours on Black Friday get shift differential pay, said Target spokewoman Erika Winkels.
"Efforts are being made to staff holiday hours on a volunteer basis," Winkels said.
Barbara Loken, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, said retailers are responding to what many consumers want. "When the economy is tight, people want to go early to get the deals," Loken said.
What some might call crass commercialism, others can defend as family time, Loken said. By the 8 p.m. opening at Wal-Mart, many families are already starting to head home, she said, so if they're heading out to shop together at Mall of America, that's still a family outing.
A lot of families go to movies on Thanksgiving night, Loken noted, yet no one's signing petitions in protest.
In fact, Thanksgiving can be a big day for box-office receipts, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box office division at Hollywood.com. "It depends on how appealing the movies are," he said.
Many shoppers, even those who grumble about early store openings, are shopping online on Thanksgiving.
The number of consumers who reported shopping online or offline has climbed from 15 percent in 2008 to 22 percent in 2011, according to the National Retail Federation.
Within three years, online sales on Thanksgiving Day could surpass those of Black Friday, said Chad White, research director at Responsys.com. Last year, online sales jumped 18 percent to $479 million on Thanksgiving Day while online sales increased 26 percent to $816 million on Black Friday.
With more shoppers buying online from Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday, the impact of Black Friday has been diminished, Perro-Jarvis said.
"Consumers aren't as excited about Black Friday shopping as they used to be," he said, "because they're smarter shoppers who know the best deal may strike in December or even August."
John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633