Is it fair for retail workers to trade in their Thanksgiving dinner to serve bargain-hungry shoppers?

It's a question being debated in cyberspace, as online petitions have sprung up this week calling for retailers to reverse plans to open stores on midnight or earlier on Black Friday.

The dust-up started with Target Corp. employee Anthony Hardwick, who launched an online petition with that so far has received more than 160,000 signatures. As of Thursday, about 50 similar petition drives have popped up against various retailers over their Black Friday schedules, according to, an advocacy group.

"I cannot say any stronger that this is proof that people across the country want to spend Thanksgiving with their family," said Hardwick, who works in Omaha.

But experts note that odd holiday hours are just the reality of retail. Workers shouldn't be surprised that their special day is being cut short.

"In retail, the hours are long and awkward, so it's not uncommon that particularly around the holidays you have unusual schedules, particularly starting early or going late," said Dave Brennan, co-director of the Institute for Retailing Excellence at the University of St. Thomas.

"This is what retail is," said Best Buy Co. Inc. spokeswoman Kelly Groehler. "We have a responsibility to be competitive, to grow our business and to be there where the customer wants us."

Even Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn will be working through the holiday. Dunn will be at a Twin Cities store when it opens at midnight on Black Friday, as he has done in previous years. Target Chief Executive Gregg Steinhafel also plans to be out at stores on Black Friday.

Retailers argue they are opening earlier because that's what consumers want. In addition, stores are trying to goose sales in anticipation of a lackluster holiday shopping season. The National Retail Federation says sales may rise just 2.8 percent this holiday season, or about half as much as last year.

"You can't change the rules," said Britt Beemer, CEO of America's Research Group. "You got to be competitive today or you won't be in business."

Other stores that will open at midnight or earlier include Macy's, Gap, Kohl's, Toys 'R' Us and the Mall of America.

The federation said many shoppers, particularly those ages 18 to 34, say they would rather stay up late and shop for Black Friday deals than wake up in the middle of the night to line up for an early-morning opening.

But some retail employees say the earlier hours are too much. When stores opened doors at 5 or 6 a.m. on Black Friday, they could still enjoy a turkey dinner with friends and family. That's impossible under these new schedules.

Seth Coleman, a 29-year-old Target employee who lives in Northfield, said he will start his Thanksgiving from 4 a.m. to 10:45 a.m. unloading items from trucks for the big Black Friday sale. Hours later, he will return to the store at 10:45 p.m. on Thanksgiving to help customers until 8 a.m. on Black Friday.

"I don't have a Thanksgiving this year," Coleman said. "I have to sleep in between my two shifts or eat and not be able to sleep."

Despite the petitions, retailers are unlikely to change their minds about the hours, said John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. While retail workers are upset about the inconvenience, there are plenty of workers more than willing take the extra hours -- and pay.

"When unemployment is high, employers are more in the driver's seat because there are other people who want those jobs and because times are tough. They are less likely to make as many changes," Challenger said.

Target responded to Hardwick's petition Thursday by saying the 29-year-old part-time worker was never scheduled to work Thanksgiving because he requested the time off. Hardwick disagreed, saying he was told he needed to work that day. He said he mentioned to a manager that he didn't want to work that shift because he was scheduled to work at OfficeMax at 5 a.m., though he never filed a formal request.

Meanwhile, Rick Melaragni, a Best Buy employee from Florida who started a petition, was told on Thursday that he is scheduled to work at 7 a.m. on Black Friday. He had planned on coming in on Thanksgiving evening.

Analysts said it's uncertain whether stores will continue the midnight or earlier openings next year. That will depend on how many consumers shop at that time this year.

But National Retail Federation Vice President Ellen Davis said workers should be thankful for the hours, even if they're on Thanksgiving. "Employees should be happy about that because it means there is more job security for them."

Wendy Lee • 612-673-1712