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No thanks? Early-bird shoppers eat and run

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The early-opening mania hasn’t missed Wenatchee — in recent years, shoppers have lined up in the middle of the night to get in on the best Black Friday deals. In this case, a local mob waited outside J.C. Penney at 3:30 a.m.

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NEW YORK — Last Thanksgiving Day, Kimberly Mudge Via’s mother, sister and nieces left in the middle of their meals to head for the mall.

Now, Via says she’ll never host Thanksgiving dinner for her relatives again.

They barely finished,” says the 28-year-old who lives in Boone, N.C.“They thanked me and left their plates on the counter.”

That scene could become more common in homes across the country. Black Friday shopping, the annual rite of passage on the day after Thanksgiving, continues to creep further into the holiday as more stores open their doors a day early.

It’s a break with tradition. Black Friday, which typically is the year’s biggest shopping day, for a decade has been considered the official start to the busy holiday buying season. Stores open in the wee hours of the morning with special deals called doorbusters and stay open late into the evening. Meanwhile, Thanksgiving and Christmas remained the only two days a year that stores were closed.

Now Thanksgiving is slowly becoming just another shopping day. Over the past few years, major retailers, including Target and Toys R Us, slowly have pushed opening times into Thanksgiving night to one-up each other and compete for holiday dollars. Some initially resisted, saying that they wanted their employees to be able to spend time with their families.

This year, more than a dozen major retailers are opening on Thanksgiving, including a handful like Macy’s, J.C. Penney and Staples that are doing it for the first time. The Gap, which operates its Old Navy, Gap and Banana Republic, is opening half of its stores on Thanksgiving morning.

Roger Beahm, professor of marketing at the Wake Forest University School of Business in Winston-Salem, N.C., expects that it’s just a matter of time — he estimates five years — before most chains open all day on Thanksgiving. As for Christmas, he says that day is still sacred among shoppers.

The floodgates have opened,” Beahm says. “People will turn Thanksgiving Day shopping into a tradition as they historically have on the day after Thanksgiving … And stores don’t want to be left behind.”

Indeed, retailers say they’re just doing what shoppers want. And they know that opening earlier gives them a chance to be the first to grab shoppers’ dollars. That’s an important opportunity for chains, which can make up to 40 percent of their annual revenue during the last two months of the year.

But so far, it’s unclear whether opening on Thanksgiving boosts retailers’ top line or simply pushes forward sales from Friday. Last year, it was the latter: Sales on Thanksgiving were $810 million last year, an increase of 55 percent from the previous year as more stores opened on the holiday, according to Chicago research firm ShopperTrak.

But business dropped 1.8 percent to $11.2 billion on Black Friday, though it still was the biggest shopping day last year.