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, Macy's, Wal-Mart and Kohl's are among at least a dozen major retailers that are opening on Thanksgiving. Several are opening for the first time, and others, including Gap, are opening earlier on the holiday than they did last year.
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. That day accounted for about 4.3 percent of holiday sales last year.
"Customers clearly showed that they wanted to be out shopping much earlier on Thanksgiving," Amy von Walter, a spokeswoman for Best Buy, which moved up its opening this year to 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving from midnight on Black Friday in 2012. "Our plan this holiday is a direct result of that feedback."
To be sure, the issue is divisive among shoppers. Some believe that the holiday should remain sacred and that store employees should not have to work. Some even have threatened on retailers' Facebook pages that they will boycott stores that open on Thanksgiving.
Jennifer Gillis, 49, refused to shop during the holidays at Sears and Kmart last year because she believes Thanksgiving should not be commercialized. This year, she's adding Macy's to the list.
"I think it's turning into a day of greed — for shoppers and stores," Gillis, who lives in Hawaii, says.
Given the controversy, opening on Thanksgiving can be a difficult decision for retailers to make.
For instance, last year, Macy's and J.C. Penney didn't open on Thanksgiving evening as competitors did. Both chains say they wanted to honor their workers' time with their families. But this year, they changed their tune.