David McCombs has spent the past 10 Thanksgivings camped out in a Best Buy parking lot in central Alabama.
Each year, he and a rotating crew of friends have shown up days — sometimes a week — in advance and set up tents, couches and folding chairs to wait for the official start of the holiday shopping season. They played lacrosse, organized basketball tournaments and watched movies that they projected onto the side of the building. At night, they slept in sleeping bags and hammocks as they prepared for the year's biggest competition: beating their neighbors to discounted doorbusters.
But this fall, the local Best Buy closed — yet another casualty of Americans' changing shopping habits — and brought the decade-long tradition to an end. Just as well, McCombs says. He's doing more of his shopping online, too.
"Black Friday has lost its luster," he said. "It's just another day of sales now that you can buy everything online."
Shoppers, it seems, are over the frenzied, harried, wait-all-night-in-the-cold madness of Black Friday. They are increasingly shunning the shopping holiday, opting instead to spread out purchases over a course of weeks or months. For the first time, more Americans are preparing to shop online this holiday season than in department stores, according to data from the National Retail Federation.
Although big-box stores — Target, Macy's and Best Buy among them — continue to open Thanksgiving Day, many are toning down the hoopla. Kohl's began offering Black Friday deals on its website Monday. Old Navy's
50-percent-off promotions have been online since Wednesday. Those doorbuster deals that Walmart is hawking in stores Thursday evening? They've been available on the company's website — with free shipping — for hours.
"Frankly, Black Friday has become meaningless," said Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia Business School. "Retailers are desperate — they're offering discounts weeks in advance, so what more is there to do? There's no urgency anymore."
No urgency, maybe, but long-held traditions can be difficult to give up. By the time J.C. Penney opened its doors at 2 p.m., more than 200 people were waiting in line outside a shopping mall in suburban Maryland. Some said they had come seeking specific deals — $2.99 pillows or $199.99 Playstations — while many others had been lured by the possibility of a"mystery" coupon valued at $10, $100 or $500.
Alexander Ibe, 17, arrived with his mother and sister at 10 a.m. They were the first in line, and they thought they would have a decent chance at snagging a $500 coupon. The store had yet to open, but they were already disappointed: "Stand in line for four hours to get $10 off?," Ibe said. "It wasn't worth it. Everything is online anyway."
Others, though, came without many expectations. Shopping on Thanksgiving, they said, is more about the bustle than the bargains.
"I just love the crowds," said Eboni Henry of Brookland, who arrived at 1 p.m. while her family was cooking their Thanksgiving meal. "I think there are deals but even if they aren't, I just like the atmosphere."
It was quieter than usual this year, she said. There was no mad dash to get in — people filed in orderly, and many of the discounts being advertised in the store had already been online at JCPenney.com for 14 hours and counting.
The first time she shopped on Black Friday, back in 2007, she was nine months pregnant with her son. She woke up at 3 a.m. to go shopping and arrived home hours later with two coffee makers that cost $3.50 and a pair of pajamas. She was hooked.
"I loved the energy," she said. "Ever since then, my family knows this is my thing. Every Thanksgiving, I'm out shopping."
Before Black Friday became just another day of discounts, it was the largest shopping day of the year. For decades, customers lined up at the country's shopping malls and big-box stores clamoring for deals they couldn't get the other 364 days of the year. It was a frenetic hunt — that sometimes led to mass hysteria — for discounts. There were stampedes in stores and arguments in the aisles.
But that madness has died down in recent years, as more Americans opt to quietly buy big-screen TVs and discounted sweaters from the comfort of their homes. Snagging the year's best deals no longer means forgoing Thanksgiving dinner to stand outside in the snow — it can be done with a tap of the phone, in between plates of turkey.
Online spending is expected to surpass $100 billion for the first time this holiday season. As Americans increasingly shop on their computers, tablets and phones, many say retail stores and shopping malls are no longer the post-turkey destinations they once were. By 5 p.m. Thursday, Americans had already spent $1.52 billion online on Thanksgiving Day, up 17 percent from last year, according to Adobe Analytics. Nearly half of those sales came from smartphones.
Among those shopping Thanksgiving week, 13 percent are expected to go to a physical store on Thursday, while 28 percent plan to shop online that day, according to data from PwC, the professional services giant.
The ease of online shopping, coupled with the flurry of early discounts, means Thanksgiving weekend no longer symbolizes the moment millions of Americans open their wallets. That, surveys show, happened weeks, if not months, earlier. More than 40 percent of Americans had already started their holiday shopping by Nov. 1, according to the National Retail Federation. By Black Friday, most Americans will have begun their gift buying.
Over the past decade, big-box chains have slowly moved up doorbuster discounts from Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) to the Thanksgiving holiday itself, and even earlier, as they try to lock in sales that might otherwise go to their competitors.
Best Buy began offering hundreds of "Black Friday" discounts three weeks early on Nov. 1. Walmart followed a day later, with $6 pajamas and $998 Samsung TVs. Amazon's "Countdown to Black Friday" has gone on for nearly a month.
At Toys R Us, executives say they have spent more than a year preparing for the weeks-long marathon leading up to the holidays.
"It's really not about Black Friday anymore," said Richard Barry, the company's chief merchandising officer. "This has become a two-week period where the customer is super focused on getting great deals."
That shift in how Americans shop, analysts say, is creating new problems for retailers. It's no longer clear exactly when Americans are ready to begin spending — or what will get them to open their wallets.
Customers, too, say they're facing new challenges: They're never quite certain when the best deals might take place. A sweater might be marked down 70 percent on Thanksgiving Day — but will the discounts be even deeper on Cyber Monday? And what to make of all of "extended" Black Friday deals that roll on until Christmas?
An hour into J.C. Penney's Thanksgiving sales, racks of $20 women's puffer jackets stood untouched, as did displays of buy-one-get-one-for-1-cent men's ties.
Manual Ponce tried on a gray peacoat, marked 60 percent off. He shrugged. "I always see these deals," he said. "It's the same as always."
This was his first time shopping on Thanksgiving, he said and he had mostly come because his girlfriend had wanted to.
"Everyone says, 'It's Black Friday, there are great sales,' " he said. "But honestly, I don't see anything that's 'wow.' "
By most measures, Americans are feeling good about the economy this year: Consumer confidence is at a 17-year high, and unemployment is at a 17-year low. The stock market is up, and gas prices are down. In all, Americans are projected to spend about $680 billion this holiday season, a 3.6 percent to 4 percent increase from last year's $655.8 billion, according to estimates by the National Retail Federation.
But despite those glimmers, these are uncertain times for the retail industry. Giants like Amazon.com and Walmart have spent the past year trying to find the right balance between online shopping and in-store experiences. Walmart has invested billions in its e-commerce operations, while Amazon spent $13.7 billion this year to buy Whole Foods Market, giving the company an inroad into the world of brick-and-mortar retail. (Jeffrey P. Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)
Traditional retailers like Sears, Macy's and JC Penney are struggling to keep up. More than 300 retailers have filed for bankruptcy this year, as Americans shun shopping malls and buy clothing, electronics and even groceries with the tap of a button.
In all, retailers have closed nearly 7,000 stores this year. Among them: the Best Buy in Fultondale, Ala., where McCombs spent nearly every Thanksgiving as an adult. Over the years, he and his friends bought dozens of televisions there, as well as Xboxes, DVDs, HDMI cables and the occasional Justin Bieber singing toothbrush.
But those days are over, he says.
"I'd rather hang out with my family," he said. "I can always shop next week."