In the Black Friday of the not-so-distant past, shoppers lined up for store openings at 6 a.m. the day after Thanksgiving. If a retailer was really pushing the envelope, its stores might open at 5 a.m.
That seems pretty quaint now.
In recent years, retailers have pushed opening hours ever earlier, and this year is no exception. Retailers nationwide are experimenting with a variety of approaches, including Thanksgiving Day openings and pre-Thanksgiving special events, in an attempt to maximize holiday sales.
Black Friday, which is still an important day for retailers, is losing its claim as the unofficial start to the holiday shopping season.
''When does it actually begin? No one really knows any more," said John Talbott, associate director for the Center for Education and Research in Retailing at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business.
Thanksgiving used to be one of the few days when retailers remained closed. But based on retail-industry data, shopping may be turning into a new Thanksgiving Day tradition.
According to a National Retail Federation survey, the number of Thanksgiving Day shoppers climbed dramatically in recent years. In 2009, the survey said, 18.1 million people shopped on Thanksgiving Day. That number has increased every year, hitting 35.4 million last year.
Shoe Carnival is among the retailers opening earlier this year than ever before.
''Our feeling is that we've got to make ourselves available for the customers when they want to shop," said Todd Beurman, senior vice president of marketing at Shoe Carnival. The retailer operates some 370 stores in 32 states, plus Puerto Rico.
Last year, Shoe Carnival opened its stores at midnight on Black Friday.
Beurman noted that last year's shoppers looked tired by the time they showed up at Shoe Carnival -- likely because they had already been shopping for hours at the big box retailers that had opened earlier in the evening.
So this year, Shoe Carnival's stores will open at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving. The stores will remain open until midnight, then close before reopening at 6 a.m. on Black Friday.
The retailer will offer the same "doorbuster" specials on Thanksgiving evening and at its Black Friday opening 12 hours later, Beurman said.
IU professor Talbott described Black Friday as "a retail arms race" that has retailers extending their hours and offering big doorbusters in a competition for consumer dollars.
''Once one guy gets the weapon, the other guy has to get the same thing."
The competition is fierce for a couple of reasons, Talbott said.
For one thing, he said, consumers have a set amount of money to spend on holiday shopping. Someone with a gift budget of $500 will spend about the same amount no matter when the stores open. So retailers may choose to open early in hopes of getting some of those sales before the customer's wallet runs dry.
Another factor, he said, has to do with the fact that most major U.S. retailers are public companies. How does this make a difference? First, a bit of background:
In the retail industry, a metric called comparable-store sales is considered an important measure of performance. This metric measures a retailer's sales only at its stores that have been open for the past 12 months, which eliminates the year-to-year variance caused by store openings and closings.
Black Friday is not an especially profitable day for retailers, Talbot said, because much of the merchandise is offered at a discount. But it is a day when retailers typically see higher-than-normal sales numbers.
So retailers always want their stores to sell more than they did a year ago. If they don't have a good sales day on Black Friday, same-store sales for the month may decline. If same-store sales decline, Wall Street will take notice and the retailer's stock price will likely drop.
Even if the retailer comes back with good results on its next quarterly earnings report, Talbott said, by that time the stock price has already been affected.
''Once you take a hit like that, sometimes it's tough to get it back."
As shopping encroaches on Thanksgiving Day, not everyone is happy about it.
Some shoppers are visiting retailers' Facebook pages to register their displeasure with the stores' decision to open on Thursday because it intrudes on employees' family time.
Talbott said his own brother-in-law, who works for a major retailer, will have to leave the family Thanksgiving celebration early to go to work that evening.
''He doesn't like that, and I don't like it either," Talbott said.
But, he acknowledged, not everyone has the same point of view.
''I think that there's this mythical notion of what Thanksgiving is like," Talbott said.
The reality is that not everyone enjoys a big meal with loved ones.
''For some people, they may be in an apartment by themselves and perhaps would like the opportunity to walk around the mall."
For those who disagree with Thanksgiving Day shopping, Talbott offers a simple solution: Stay home.
''If people don't shop on Thanksgiving Day, stores will discontinue the practice. Retailers are excellent at giving us what we want."