NEW YORK — Early-bird shoppers headed to stores on Thanksgiving in what's becoming a new holiday tradition.
By 4 p.m. on Thanksgiving, 100 shoppers were in line at the Toys R Us in New York City's Times Square. By the time the doors opened at 5 p.m., the number of people waiting in line had doubled.
Mary Smalls, 40, was there trying to get all her shopping done on Thanksgiving. She said she wanted to avoid heading out on the day after the holiday known as Black Friday.
"I'm going to try to avoid the crowds," said Smalls, who plans on spending $300 or $400 on gifts this year.
Just a few years ago when a few stores started opened late on the holiday, the move was met with resistance from workers and shoppers who believed the day should be sacred.
Last year, more than dozen major retailers opened at some point on Thanksgiving evening. And this year, at least half of them — including Target, Macy's, Staples and J.C. Penney — are opening earlier in the evening on the holiday.
The Thanksgiving openings are one way retailers are trying to compete for Americans' holiday dollars. Used to be that Black Friday was when they'd focus their sales promotions. But increasingly, they've been pushing those promotions earlier on Friday — and eventually into the holiday itself — to grab deal-hungry shoppers' attention.
Bill Martin, co-founder of ShopperTrak, which tracks data at 70,000 stores globally, is expecting a sales increase of 3 percent to 5 percent to $2.57 billion to $2.62 billion on Thanksgiving. Last year's figure grew two-fold from the year before.
The National Retail Federation expects 25.6 million shoppers to take advantage of the Thanksgiving openings, down slightly down from last year.
Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman at the retail trade group, said that earlier promotions in the month and shoppers' uncertainty about when they can get the best deals are factors that could lead to fewer shoppers coming out on the holiday.
Nevertheless, Thanksgiving is starting to take a bite out of Black Friday business. Indeed, sales dropped 13.2 percent to $9.74 billion on Black Friday last year. Analysts said Thanksgiving sales were in part responsible for the decline.
And Gerald Storch, who runs a retail consultancy called Storch Advisors, said stores that open on Thanksgiving get more of their share for the weekend than others who open on Friday.
"That's why they keep doing it," he said. "You have to be first."
Being first lures shoppers like Tequila Wilkinson, 34, who arrived at an Target in New York's East Harlem neighborhood about 3.5 hours before its 6 p.m. opening. She has been deal hunting on Thanksgiving for a few years now.
"It's a tradition," said Wilkinson. "I look forward to it."
On Wilkinson's shopping list? A 40-inch TV for $119 and headphones for $97 and pajamas for $5. "I made a map in my brain," she said.
Not every shopper is happy about stores opening on the holiday. A number of petitions have been circulating on change.org targeting Wal-Mart, Target and other retailers for opening their stores on Thanksgiving, or starting their sales that day. Most of Wal-Mart's stores already open around the clock.
Even some shoppers who were out on Thanksgiving felt a tinge of guilt for shopping on a holiday. "Every year, you have to keep coming in earlier and earlier," said Hector Huayamade, 34, who was shopping at a Toys R Us store in New York while visiting from Florida with his family. "I'd prefer to spend the whole day with my family, but the stores are open so we do it."
Not every store was open on Thanksgiving, though. Some, including GameStop, Costco and Ikea, have said they won't open because they want their workers to enjoy the holiday with their families.
"At GameStop, we often use the phrase 'protect the family' in reference to our business," the video game retailer said in a company statement.