The Free Press, Mankato, MN

November 29, 2013

Many shoppers make it a Gray Thursday

The 'Black Friday' experience arrives in St. Peter

By Amanda Dyslin adyslin@mankatofreepress.com
The Mankato Free Press

---- — Greg Bates wasn’t interested in saving money, which is what drove most shoppers out of their homes to shop on Thursday.

Bates, 21, sacrificed his Thanksgiving holiday — as did his friend, 23-year-old Jessie Morris — so that he was sure he’d get his hands on a PlayStation 4. Quantities are limited, so being first in line at Best Buy Thursday morning, more than seven hours before the store opened, ensured he’d get his hands on one before they ran out.

“I grew up with PlayStation,” Bates said. “You stick to your loyalties.”

In the past, the Friday after Thanksgiving is when these kinds of lines formed outside big-box stores. But throughout southern Minnesota, the Thanksgiving scene looked a little different this year.

Instead of mostly quiet streets, traffic flowed toward major retailers Thursday night for all the early shopping deals on what has been coined “Gray Thursday.” That’s because many retailers decided to vie for bigger shares of the “Black Friday” pie by opening on Thanksgiving.

The scene was completely new to St. Peter, which had never had a large retail store until recently when Shopko moved into town, said Todd Prafke, city clerk/administrator. In previous years, the shopping experience was centered mostly around the downtown specialty shops and certainly did not begin on Thanksgiving.

“Downtown St. Peter is a Norman Rockwell shopping scene,” said Ed Lee, executive director of the St. Peter Chamber of Commerce. “Stores will certainly have specials on Black Friday, but there won’t be long lines and door-buster sales. It has always been more about atmosphere and elbow room, strolling casually from shop to shop, and taking breaks to sip coffee or hot chocolate.”

St. Peter’s Shopko was open early Thursday through 3 p.m. About 40 people were lined up before the store opened and then flowed in and out throughout the day.

Marleen Newbrough of Cleveland was one of the afternoon shoppers who said she had to drive to Mankato in the past when she wanted to do some Black Friday shopping. The Shopko flier advertising good prices on coats for her grandkids and LED lights drew her out of her house on Thanksgiving, she said.

And actually, Newbrough said it wasn’t much of an inconvenience to have to shop on Thanksgiving. The meal had already been eaten, and the dishes were in the dishwasher when she headed to the store.

On the hill in Mankato, lines had yet to form mid-afternoon outside stores such as Target and Shopko for evening opening times. (The stores stayed open all night and will be open all day today.)

But at Best Buy, Bates and Morris had already been joined by a few other guys even before the noon hour.

“Not only am I giving up my Thanksgiving, I’m giving up my Packers game right now,” said Morris, who wasn’t planning any major purchases at Best Buy when the store opened. “I’m just here for support.”

“This is a true friend right here,” Bates said.

According to national surveys, the Gray Thursday and Black Friday price cuts are necessary to get shoppers into the stores this year. Despite signs that the economy is improving, big store chains like Wal-Mart and Kohl’s don’t expect Americans to have much holiday shopping cheer unless they see bold, red signs that offer huge discounts. As a result, shoppers are seeing big sales events earlier and more often than in previous holiday seasons.

Since the recession began in late 2007, stores have had to offer financially-strapped Americans ever bigger price cuts just to get them into stores. But those discounts eat away at profits.

So far, Wal-Mart, Target and Kohl’s are among more than two dozen major chains that lowered their profit outlooks for either the quarter or the year. A big reason is the expectation that they’ll have to offer huge discounts in order to get shoppers to spend.

There are already signs that retailers are aggressively discounting. Wal-Mart had already started matching or beating the prices that certain competitors like Best Buy are advertising for some toys and electronics for Black Friday. Best Buy also matches rivals’ prices, even after customers have purchased items. And Target, better known for its whimsical advertising, is touting its prices in holiday TV ads for the first time in at least a decade.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.