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Shopping shift: Thanksgiving eve rush creates overnight lull, then a Black Friday resurgence

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Last year on Black Friday, about 150 shoppers formed a line at Home Depot that stretched the length of the parking lot before doors opened at 5 a.m.

But this year, the line covered only half of the lot before the home-improvement retailer off Coffeen Street opened at the same time. That may have been the price it paid for refusing to open Thanksgiving night to capture the biggest rush, as most national retailers did.

Several retail managers said Friday that most customers started their shopping Thursday night. They then went home after midnight to sleep before continuing their sprees at about 8 a.m. That shift meant a lull in sales for several retailers between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. — a flip-flop from last year.

Last year’s stream of shoppers at Home Depot seemed like a distant memory compared with this year, said Travis J. Kuder, store manager. He said the density of shoppers at 5 a.m. was considerably down. But he said sustained traffic during the morning made up for it.

“It was elbow-to-elbow here for about two hours last year,” Mr. Kuder said. “But business has stayed steady throughout the day, and I’m expecting better sales than last year based on how we’re trending.

“A lot of our stuff is already sold out,” he said at about noon Friday.

Mr. Kuder contended that the disadvantage of opening later was a price Home Depot willingly paid to ensure its associates could enjoy the holiday.

“Our company believes in taking care of our associates so they can spend time with family on the holidays,” he said. “And I think most people that have family values appreciate that.”

From a business perspective, though, retailers that opened up early reported much stronger sales than last year. They said many of Thursday night’s shoppers double-dipped by shopping again Friday morning. That was the case at J.C. Penney at Salmon Run Mall, which opened at 8 p.m. Thursday, said Daniel B. Cotton, store manager. The entire staff of about 100 employees, up 30 from last year, worked during the sale. They were paid a holiday wage of time and a half.

“Our peak time was between 9 and 10 p.m. last night, but it wasn’t just a jolt,” Mr. Cotton said. “It sustained itself longer than we anticipated. Business dropped off significantly after about 2 a.m., but we expected that.”

But he said sales surged again at about 8 a.m. At about 10:30 a.m. Friday, all 29 checkout registers at the store were busy; the longest line was 36 customers deep, while multiple lines had more than 20 shoppers.

Mr. Cotton said the store added 14 checkout registers this year for its sale that enabled customers to check out using iPod Touches. Checkout devices are nicknamed Libby for “Libby the Liberator,” he said, because employees can assist customers without being chained to a register.

The early start on Thursday was music to the ears of Canadians, said Ontario native Stephanie L. Poitras, who stayed overnight at the Hilton Garden Inn with her mother-in-law, Cindy L. Tyrell. Canadians celebrated their Thanksgiving Oct. 14, so the pair had no qualms about standing in line Thursday night. Unlike the U.S., they said, nearly all Ontario stores close on the holiday.

“We arrived at Walmart at about 4:30 p.m. yesterday to stand in line,” Ms. Poitras said while purchasing a pair of shades at the Sunglass Hut in the mall. “We shopped until 2 a.m. last night. We noticed our hotel has mostly Ontario license plates, and we see a lot of people we know there.”

They went back to the mall at about 10 a.m. to continue shopping.

“This is good for us, because we did much better shopping than last year. But I feel bad for Americans who have to work on the holiday,” Ms. Tyrell said. “Retailers here don’t seem to value family time as much as they do in Canada.”

Deb, a women’s clothing store at the mall, opened at 10 p.m. Thursday. Store manager Lacy J. Hare, who was sleepy-eyed Friday morning, explained she started her shift at 11 p.m. Thursday and was still at work 12 hours later.

“We had a lot of people here from about midnight to 3 a.m., but it wasn’t super busy,” she said. “I think people went home to take a nap and come back.”

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