Shelley Sharp’s plans for a traditional Thanksgiving Day began with a church service at a seaside chapel on Anna Maria Island, a hike at Leffis Key Preserve and turkey dinner with 10 family members, including relatives from Maryland. Absent from her plan: holiday shopping.
On a recent visit to International Plaza in Tampa, Sharp had a conversation with a store clerk who told her she was grateful to have Thursday off from work to celebrate Thanksgiving.
“It’s important for employees to be with family and friends, to be able to volunteer at church and help the homeless,” Sharp said. “I thought it was so wonderful the whole mall was going to be closed, I wrote a note about how I felt and left it with their concierge.”
However, on Thursday, thousands of Tampa Bay area shoppers and retail employees eschewed Thanksgiving Day tradition and headed to work and shop.
The Thanksgiving holiday shopping day that’s becoming known as Gray Thursday is gaining popularity alongside — and even chipping into — Black Friday, the traditional start of the season retailers look to for up to 40 percent of annual revenue.
Consumers’ affinity for “doorbuster” deals and other discounts are helping make Thanksgiving shopping the latest American holiday tradition, according to the Accenture Holiday Shopping Survey, which found 38 percent of shoppers were likely to shop on Thanksgiving Day. Contrary to reports that Black Friday’s sales were on the decline, the Accenture report said Black Friday’s lure as a major shopping event this year is at its highest level in five years. Fifty-five percent of consumers surveyed said they were likely to be shopping the day after Thanksgiving.
Jon McDonald, store manager at the Big Kmart at 2915 N. Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa, said he expected shoppers to number in the thousands on Thursday, but because shopping hours were extended this year, the crowds would be spread out more throughout the day. Still, more than 100 people had lined up outside to be among the first to start shopping at 6 a.m. Thanksgiving Day.
By 8 a.m., not only were coffee and breakfast outlets such as Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts and Cracker Barrel along Tampa Road in Pinellas County open and catering to holiday customers, the parking lot at the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Oldsmar was more than one-third filled with shoppers’ vehicles.
And by late afternoon, when stores such as Toys R Us and Best Buy opened their doors in Clearwater, shoppers who already had enjoyed their Thanksgiving meals created lines that numbered in the hundreds, an early indication that the shopping season could be off to a good start.
Kim Perez-Rodriguez and her husband, Carlos, were among the shoppers Thursday at the Big Kmart, following their tradition of beginning Christmas shopping on Thanksgiving.
They got started at 9 a.m. Thursday at CVS, then headed to Dollar General, the Big Kmart and Best Buy, and planned to line up at a Wal-Mart at 6 p.m. for a chance to get a 50-inch TV on sale at 12:01 a.m. Black Friday for $288.
“That will be our gift to each other this Christmas.” Kim Perez-Rodriguez said of the TV. “We probably will do more shopping on Black Friday, though.”
At the Clearwater Toys R Us store at 26286 U.S. 19, store manager Trace Quirk gave a last minute pep talk to his crew as the line outside the store grew to more than 500, as estimated by security officers.
“It’s almost 5 o’clock,” Quirk said. “They will be coming through the door in 30 seconds. Throw on the lights. Don’t let them veer left when they get in. Have them go to the right.”
That command went by the wayside by the time the 10th customer entered the store.
The first customer inside was Kyle Bear, of Hudson, who’d been waiting since 10 a.m. to buy toys for his two daughters, including a $29.99 LeapFrog Leapster game system, with a built-in camera and a library of more than 300 apps. The cost savings: 50 percent.
“I think it’s too early,” Bear said of shopping on the holiday, although he coveted the various sale opportunities. “We celebrated Thanksgiving last night.”
Sharp, the woman opposed to Thanksgiving Day shopping, would have agreed with Bear’s sentiments, but she laid the responsibility on the retail industry rather than the shoppers.
“The retail pursuit is ‘come shop,come shop, and the media pushes it,’ ” Sharp lamented. “I know some people have to work on Thanksgiving at the hospitals, at the airports, but to me the retailers drown out the goodness of the holiday.
“I’m just grateful for Publix to remain closed out of respect for their employees, and for Nordstrom’s to not decorate for Christmas until after Thanksgiving.”
Kmarts nationwide have been open on Thanksgiving Day for 22 years, except where prevented by state blue laws, so working Thanksgiving Day was nothing new for employees such as Gloria Blount, who showed up at 5 a.m. — an hour earlier than usual — at the Tampa store on Thursday with no regrets.
“I have been with the company for 30 years,” Blount said. “This is what we do.”
One of her associates, Revarda Murray, echoed Blount’s sentiments.
“This is retail,” Murray said. “I feel blessed to be an employee.”
This is the first year Kmart extended its Thanksgiving Day hours to remain open through 11 p.m. on Black Friday. The store employs about 100 full- and part-time workers, so some schedules must be adjusted to accommodate the consecutive 41-hour sale.
Full-time employees are paid time and a half for Thanksgiving, and additional store hours mean part-time workers can pick up some extra money just in time for the holiday season, McDonald said.
Thanksgiving Day retail strategies are determined at the corporate headquarters level at companies nationwide, with a keen eye on competitors’ activities and comparative performance.
“Upper management’s strategy is to listen to what our customers want,” said Big Kmart store manager McDonald, who has worked for the company for 22 years. “That’s why we have been open on Thanksgiving. Customers want the convenience to shop when they can.”