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The madness that in the good old days had Black Friday shoppers elbowing each other to get in the doors of major retailers at 6 a.m. and segued over the past few years into the madness of waiting in blocks-long lines for midnight openings has now muscled its way into one of America's most beloved holidays, Thanksgiving.
But to small retailers in the region, who so far have eschewed following big box stores by opening tonight on what is starting to be called Black Thursday, it's all still madness.
"We try to give a feeling that there's a place where you don't have to have all that craziness," said Jim Holley, owner of Franklin's General Store at Olde Mistick Village shopping center. "It gets you out of that rat race."
Holley said a few stores at the Mystic shopping area will open early Friday, but most will resume business during their normal hours, and none will open on Thanksgiving.
"Christmas shopping should be fun, not a chore," said Barbara Sinclair, co-owner of The Toy Soldier at Olde Mistick Village. "Here, it's more relaxing; it's a more enjoyable experience."
Sinclair and other small retailers say Black Friday, in any case, isn't their best day for sales. Instead, it's usually during the last couple of weeks of the holiday sales season, just before Christmas, when their cash registers get a workout.
Peter Marcus, owner of Lee's Toy & Hobby in Groton, said he has been de-emphasizing Black Friday, concentrating instead on an open house the store will hold Dec. 1 and 2 to thank customers with special offers.
"One day doesn't make the season," Marcus said. "We don't make a big deal about Black Friday."
Considered the biggest shopping day of the year and the kick-off of the Christmas selling season, the Friday after Thanksgiving traditionally has been when major retailers offer door-busting prices on on popular items. But over the past few years, major chain stores have been moving up the clock, with a few dipping their toes into Thanksgiving Day sales.
This year, more stores are deciding that they must open tonight to stay competitive, which has raised the hackles of retail workers and their families nationwide. Wal-Mart workers, whose stores are opening at 8 tonight, have threatened a Black Friday strike in some areas, while Target employees, whose stores are to tip off the holiday season at 9 tonight, have chosen a petition campaign to convince the retailer to rethink its Thanksgiving plans.
Thomas G. Phelan, president of the Connecticut Retail Merchants Association, pointed out in an email that Thanksgiving openings in the state have been going on for many years, including convenience stores, movie theaters and supermarkets.
"Consumers have responded in a positive manner to these Thanksgiving night openings, so we respond in kind," Phelan said. "Retailers in general are always looking to create an exciting shopping experience."
He added that with retailers staggering their openings, the "door-buster effect" of unruly crowds clamoring for limited merchandise may be eased, reducing some of the fisticuffs that have been associated with Black Friday.
"Many prefer to shop following their family gatherings rather than in the very early hours of the morning," added Molly Snyder, a spokeswoman for Target, in an email.
At the Crystal Mall in Waterford, which opened at 4 a.m. last year, most stores will kick off Black Friday at midnight, though Sears plans an 8 o'clock start tonight.
Karen Tarantino, mall manager, reported that last year's 4 a.m. opening resulted in heavy traffic from shoppers, many of whom clearly had been out getting bargains elsewhere earlier in the morning.
"This move to midnight is in response to feedback from shoppers," she said. "We're seeing people really want us to open early."
Tarantino said the first 50 shoppers inside the mall will receive a survival kit, including snacks and water. Entertainment will be provided throughout the day Friday, and mall managers during the season plan to hand out gift cards randomly for such items as pretzels and coffee.
Other local shopping meccas plan additional enticements, including the Tanger Outlet Center in Westbrook, which has been promoting a 10 p.m. opening tonight and a giveaway of a $250 shopping spree gift card every hour until 6 a.m. Friday.
For many shoppers, Black Friday has become an adventure, a cavalcade of capitalism in which the ultimate prize is nabbing a deal that shaves a couple hundred bucks off a flat-screen TV or lands an electronic gadget that might be in short supply later on. But for local retailers, the next day, now dubbed Small Business Saturday, is often busier, as shoppers move from finding a bargain to discovering a treasured gift in a festive atmosphere.
"We believe we're going to have a great weekend," said Holley, proprietor of Franklin's General Store.
8 p.m.: Sears, Toys R Us and Wal-Mart
9 p.m.: Target
Midnight: Kohl's, Macy's, Old Navy, Crystal Mall
6 a.m.: JC Penney
10 CONSUMER TIPS
Layaway: Layaway can be helpful to reduce credit spending, but watch for hidden fees. Connecticut stores must give you a layaway statement, so pay attention to the terms.
Price matching: Stores often promise to match their competitors' advertised prices, but for electronics, entertainment systems and appliances, you may have difficulty finding the exact same model in competing stores. If you see an ad for the exact same item at a lower price, check all the conditions in the ad before you shop. Call ahead to save time and energy.
Shopping online and by mail: Use only well-known online retailers to avoid scams.
Gift cards: Be sure to understand which protections are available when you buy the cards. Under state law, gift cards sold in Connecticut do not expire, even if an expiration date is printed on the card, nor can they accrue inactivity fees or penalties.
Refunds: In Connecticut, retailers can impose any refund and exchange policy they wish, but they must be conspicuously posted at store entrances, where the items are displayed for sale or at the checkout counter. With no posted policy, you have seven days to return almost any new, unused item, with its original packaging and the sales receipt. Exceptions include custom-ordered or custom-made items, plants, clearance, "as-is" items, or anything otherwise prohibited by law.
Restocking fees: Some stores charge you if you return an item. They are allowed to do it, provided they post a notice of their restocking fees in a conspicuous place in the store.
Extended warranties: These are not warranties at all. A warranty is something you get free with the product. These are service contracts that you pay for and they are not usually recommended, since service contracts often overlap the warranty period that comes with the product (when most repair problems occur).
Source: State Department of Consumer Protection