Written by Duane Marsteller, The Tennessean
Midnight mall openings. Thanksgiving night door-busters. Shopping by smartphone. Staggered sales.
The traditional start to the annual holiday shopping season is undergoing some nontraditional changes as a result of new technology and shifting consumer behavior, changes that likely will become permanent, retail experts said.
"Black Friday is evolving, just as the retail landscape is evolving," said Jeff Green of Jeff Green & Associates, a retail consultancy based in Phoenix.
Below is a look at some of the major changes marking Black Friday 2012.
Earlier openings: Major retailers are launching their Black Friday sales as early as 8 p.m. tonight, at least two hours earlier than last year, sparking some consumer and employee backlash. Despite that, analysts expect the earlier-is-better trend to grow as brick-and-mortar stores fight to protect market share from online competitors.
Several Middle Tennessee indoor malls also will open at midnight this Black Friday. CoolSprings Galleria in Franklin, Opry Mills in Nashville, Premium Outlets in Lebanon, RiverGate Mall in Goodlettsville and Stones River Mall in Murfreesboro.
It will be the earliest-ever opening for CoolSprings and RiverGate, said Melissa Asman of CBL & Associates Properties Inc., which owns both malls.
"The feedback from stores was they were going to open at midnight and more shoppers will be here at midnight, so it made sense to open the malls at midnight," she said.
The Mall at Green Hills is bucking the trend: It will open at 8 a.m. Friday, two hours earlier than usual.
Several retailers, including Macy's, Wal-Mart and Nashville-based Kirkland's, are unveiling new or upgraded apps to help shoppers find what they're looking for and, retailers hope, spur more sales.
Kirkland's newly launched app features design tips and a "Deal Wheel," which customers "spin" to win coupons that they can redeem at the register. The home-décor chain developed the app after the success of a text-messaging campaign begun last year.
"Customer feedback has been extremely positive, with most loving the gaming and surprise component, resulting in exceeded sales and download expectations," said Mark Krebs, the company's vice president of marketing.
Macy's mobile app alerts shoppers to unadvertised, limited-time specials while they are in the store. Wal-Mart's app includes interactive store layout maps that allow shoppers to find the price, description and location of merchandise.
Retailers are targeting smartphone shoppers because they are financially lucrative. Those with smartphones said they expect to spend an average of $1,428 this holiday season compared with $830 for those who don't have smartphones, according to Deloitte Consulting LLP's annual holiday shopper survey.
The days of stores putting all of their Black Friday deals on sale at once are gone, replaced by staggered sales events designed to keep consumers in the store longer.
For example, Kmart is holding three sales: One from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. today, followed by another from 8 p.m. tonight to 3 a.m. Friday morning, and the final one from 5 a.m. to 11 a.m. Friday.
Wal-Mart is following a similar script, launching Black Friday sales at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. tonight and another at 5 a.m. Friday. The first focuses on toys, clothing and housewares, while the second primarily consists of electronics and the third is on assorted items, including jewelry and sporting goods.
"It provides our customers with more shopping options," while also promoting better crowd control, Wal-Mart spokeswoman Dianna Gee said.
The world's largest retailer also is implementing a ticketing system that effectively guarantees those in line for three electronic Black Friday deals at 11 p.m. tonight will get them later even if those products are sold out on Thanksgiving night.
Those and other changes are partly designed to prevent violent acts that have marred previous Black Fridays. Those include a Wal-Mart employee who was trampled to death by shoppers in 2008 and a woman who pepper-sprayed other shoppers at a Southern California Wal-Mart last year.
Retailers are increasingly blending their online, mobile and in-store promotions to reach shoppers, the National Retail Federation said.
Nearly 30 percent of retailers surveyed by Shop.org, a division of the federation, said they plan to use mobile alerts to promote in-store Black Friday deals, up from 18 percent in 2011. The same survey also found nearly 81 percent of retailers also plan Facebook alerts, up from 74 percent in 2011.
Retailers also are expanding their early online-only Black Friday deals. Members of Sears' Shop Your Way loyalty club could begin buying some deals online as early as Sunday, while Kohl's made its Black Friday specials available online on Wednesday. Target calls its version the "Beat the Rush Sale."
Shop.org's www.cybermonday.com website will feature hourly Black Friday deals, such as free shipping and gifts, from more than 20 participating retailers. A similar promotion also is planned on the website on Cyber Monday, traditionally one of the busiest online shopping days of the year.
Nearly half of those polled in the Deloitte survey said they planned to use social media in their holiday shopping. They also plan to spend more: An average of $1,585 for those who plan to shop mobile, online and in stores, compared to $888 for store-only shoppers, the survey said.
More elbow room
Stores might not be as crowded this year, as fewer Americans plan to hit the stores during Black Friday weekend and more turn to online shopping.
Almost half of all Americans - 147 million - plan to shop during the three-day Black Friday weekend, according to a recent National Retail Federation poll. However, that's 5 million fewer than those who said they intended to do so last year.
The same poll found slightly more Americans already had started their Christmas shopping as of early November than at the same point last year.
Many likely did so without setting foot inside a store. The retail federation predicts online sales will climb by 12 percent to more than $96 billion this holiday season, while overall sales are expected to rise by just 4.1 percent from last year.