DailyFinance's Matt Brownell will be covering the official kickoff of the holiday season starting Thursday evening and throughout Black Friday itself. Refresh the page periodically for live updates of the shopping scene across the country on retail's big day. And if you've got pictures or stories of your own shopping experiences, feel free to pass them along on Twitter or by email at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com.
Small Business Saturday and Beyond
7:48 p.m. EST on Friday, Nov. 23
While it can sometimes seem like Black Friday is the be-all and end-all of holiday shopping, there's plenty of commerce left to go over the course of the next month. In fact, the Saturday before Christmas is typically even busier than Black Friday.
In the more immediate future, tomorrow is Small Business Saturday, a shopping holiday invented two years ago by American Express intended to get people to spend some holiday dollars at local small businesses. Supporting your local business owners is certainly a good cause, but there's something in it for you, too: If you enroll your eligible American Express card by the end of the day tomorrow and then use it at a participating establishment, you'll get a $25 statement credit once you've spent $25. So if you go to a restaurant and pay for the $25 check with your AmEx card, you'll basically be getting a free meal. See the site for a map of qualifying small businesses near you.
From a deal perspective, the next big event is Cyber Monday, the biggest online shopping day of the year. Check DailyFinance on Monday morning to see a rundown of the best deals that day.
After Electronics Bonanza, a More Normal Shopping Day
5:38 p.m. EST on Friday, Nov. 23
If you'd gone through the line outside any major retailer last night and asked people what they were planning to buy, we're guessing you wouldn't find too many of them waiting to charge in the door and buy a pair of jeans. Electronics (and, to a lesser extent, large appliances) rule the night on Black Friday Eve, with deals on TVs, laptops and video games headlining most circulars. And it makes sense that these would be the most popular deals on Thursday night -- most people aren't going to wait in line for hours unless they're going to save a good chunk of change, which is most likely with big ticket items like TVs.
"If I'm talking about doorbusters, the Toshiba TV was a huge draw, for $180," said Paul Pollack, store manager of the Best Buy in Brockton, Mass. "And this year over last year, [we saw] a big increase in the demand for cell phones."
But now that the doors have been busted and the big TV deals have been snatched up, Friday was a more normal (albeit insanely busy) day at the mall. We stopped by the Sears in Brockton this afternoon and found shoppers browsing all sections of the store -- a sharp contrast with the night before, when shoppers swarmed the electronics section.
"We had about 250 people in line and everybody was here for electronics," said store manager Joanne Hampton, noting that TVs in particular were big sellers. "Right now we've got a lot of women out shopping for clothing... last night you had a lot of husbands in."
Yes, Apple Does Black Friday, Too
4:00 p.m. EST on Friday, Nov. 23
Apple doesn't do sales. Oh, they'll sell some refurbished goods on their site at a discount, and take $100 off the old iPhone as soon as the new one launches, but actual sales just aren't Apple's style. Former Apple retail head Ron Johnson famously brought the same philosophy to J.C. Penney, with mixed results.
But just as J.C. Penney is breaking its no-sale rule for today only, Apple is once again holding a Black Friday sale of its own. Of course, this is Apple, so it's doing things a bit differently. It apparently refuses to call it a Black Friday sale, instead insisting that it's simply "The Apple Shopping Event." And while other retailers released their full circular of deals days or weeks in advance, Apple kept things under wrap until midnight PST tonight.
As for the deals, they're about what we saw last year: Small discounts on iPads, iPods, Macbooks and accessories. The newest iPad is marked down from $499 to $458, the latest iPod Touch is discounted by $31 and the Macbook Air is marked down from $999 to $898. Apple's newest earbuds see a significant percentage discount, marked down from $29 to $22.
The deals are available through midnight PST online and in-stores, though availability may vary in physical stores.
Analyst: Early Openings Here to Stay
12:47 p.m. EST on Friday, Nov. 23
If you don't like the idea of the shopping season starting just a few hours after Thanksgiving dinner, we've got bad news: It looks like the early-evening opening was a success.
This morning we spoke to Ramesh Swamy, a retail analyst at Deloitte who has an annual tradition of visiting retailers on Thanksgiving and Black Friday. He says the early opening brought out a different kind of crowd for the doorbusters.
"Last year when they opened at midnight, it was younger folks keeping the Black Friday tradition alive," he says. "If you have an 8 p.m. opening you can bring family to it, you get a different dynamic."
He adds that it's unclear whether that will necessarily translate into more aggregate sales for the weekend, though he did observe consistently strong foot traffic. And he says that the perfect execution by the retailers and the strong customer response probably means we won't be going back to midnight openings any time soon.
"Retailers did a great time with timing this year, so the early openings I believe are here to stay," he says. "I can't imagine that it's something they're going to abandon next year based on what I've seen."
Labor Crashes Walmart's Party
11:30 a.m. EST on Friday, Nov. 23
As promised, labor activists are coordinating rallies, strikes and walkouts at Walmarts across the country on Black Friday. The union-backed OUR Walmart group is organizing labor actions in several states, protesting wages, hours and what it claims is a trend of retaliation by the company against workers speaking out against working conditions. Strikes and walkouts began last night at Walmart locations in cities including Miami and Dallas.
The movement also came to Massachusetts, kicking off last night around midnight while shoppers waited in line at a Walmart in Quincy (state law prohibited stores from opening on Thanksgiving itself).
There was no walkout or strike in Quincy or anywhere else in Massachusetts; instead, a group of approximately 25 activists – consisting of community and labor leaders, as well as current and former Walmart employees – gathered near the employee entrance to speak with workers waiting to get in the door to start their shift.
"We told them, we know that today isn't the day of your walkout, but when you guys are ready, when you do walk out, the community is here to support you," said Jason Stephany, a spokesman for the group.
Afterwards, the protestors brought their message to the hundreds of shoppers waiting in line, using the "human mic" method popularized during the Occupy Wall Street protests. The waiting crowd, having spent hours shivering in near-freezing temperatures, reacted with scattered applause at the sudden display. At one point, a confused shopper wandered by and asked the protestors when the store would be opening for business, apparently unaware that she'd stumbled into a labor rally.
In a press release this morning, Walmart downplayed the extent of the protests, insisting that only 26 protests occurred Thursday night and that less than 50 employees participated nationwide. It also said that it had sold 1.3 million TVs and 250,000 bikes.
Scattered Incidents, Arrests
9:30 a.m. EST on Friday, Nov. 23
Thus far we've heard no reports of anyone being trampled or seriously injured during a Black Friday opening. But as is inevitable with large crowds, there have been a few incidents of shoppers behaving badly.
At a Sears in San Antonio, Texas, a man pulled a gun on a line-cutter who allegedly punched him in the face. The gun-toting shopper had a permit for the weapon and won't be charged with a crime, according to the Associated Press.
At the Woodland Mall in Kentwood, Mich., at least two people were reportedly taken away in handcuffs following a 1:30 a.m. fight outside a J.C. Penney. Pepper spray was apparently deployed during the incident.
Child abandonment was also popular during the night's festivities. In Springfield, Mass., a man was arrested after he allegedly left his girlfriend's two-year-old child in the car while he went to his local Kmart to buy a TV. Meanwhile, a picture posted to Reddit shows what a user claims is an infant left unattended at a Best Buy.
We'll continue to update as incidents are reported throughout the day.
Target Petitioner Heads in for Shift
11:15 p.m. EST on Thursday, Nov. 22
Target doesn't have the earliest opening time on Thanksgiving -- its doors open at 9 p.m., an hour after the likes of Toys R Us and Sears. But it's become the focus of the biggest backlash after an employee, California resident Casey St. Clair, started an online petition pleading with the retailer not to intrude on its employees' Thanksgiving holiday. The petition spread like wildfire, garnering more than 370,000 signatures.
Unfortunately, it wasn't enough: Casey and her fellow employees will be working tonight when her store opens at 9 p.m. PST.
"I worked until 3 a.m. yesterday because we had to set up for today," she said in a phone interview before her shift, adding that tonight's shift will last until 6 a.m.
After the petition blew up into a national story, she says her manager called last week and offered to give her a different shift, but she decided against it.
"That's not really the message I'm trying to send with this petition," she says. "I'm not just trying to get the day off."
The petition prompted an official response from Target arguing that many employees were volunteering for the Thanksgiving shift and that there was no corporate policy forcing employees to work that night. In emails to DailyFinance, several Target employee countered that regardless of corporate policy, their store managers weren't giving them a choice in the matter.
Shoppers Turn Out in Force
9:02 p.m. EST on Thursday, Nov. 22
There was plenty of backlash against the early store openings, with employees and consumers alike bemoaning the shopping season's intrusion on Thanksgiving. But shoppers don't seem to mind the early start, as users on Twitter are reporting lines hundreds deep at their local stores.
Estimated 450 folks in line at Toys R Us twitter.com/knoxgirl75/sta...
- Carly Harrington (@knoxgirl75) November 23, 2012
Line 120 deep at Doral Best Buy, snakes around onto the grass behind the store. twitter.com/doug_hanks/sta...
- Doug Hanks (@doug_hanks) November 23, 2012
- Mike (@Charming_Idiot) November 23, 2012
And We're Off
8:30 p.m. EST on Thursday, Nov. 22
The 2012 holiday shopping season officially began on the East Coast when stores including Walmart, Toys R Us and Sears started their Black Friday sales at 8 p.m., the earliest ever start for the retail rush. Target opens its doors at 9 p.m.
For a full list of opening times and doorbuster deals at the major retailers, check out our Big Guide to Black Friday.
Stores Aim to Avoid Doorbuster Violence
7:30 p.m. EST on Thursday, Nov. 22
Last year on Black Friday, a woman pepper-sprayed fellow shoppers at a Walmart in Los Angeles. In 2010, a dramatic video captured shoppers being trampled at a Target opening in Buffalo, resulting in one shopper being sent to the hospital. And in 2008, a Walmart employee was trampled to death in suburban New York.
We spoke to a few retailers to find out what they're doing this year to avoid similar disasters.
Walmart didn't go into much detail about its plans, only saying in a statement that it's prepared unique plans for each of its stores and that is has consulted with "nationally recognized crowd management experts." A spokesperson did note, however, that the majority of its locations are open 24 hours a day even through Thanksgiving, which means that it won't have a crowd rushing in the doors at 8 p.m.; rather, customers will line up for doorbusters within the store.
Target went into more depth about its crowd-control techniques, citing Segway-bound security personnel in its parking lots, crowd-management training for store leaders and maps to help customers locate deals. And to avoid a crush of customers as the doors open, Target will control the entry of customers with periodic breaks in the line and will enforce a 10-foot buffer zone between the doors and the front of the line.
Finally, Sears and Best Buy will both have employees walk through the line to hand out tickets for big sale items before the doors open. With only as many tickets as there are items, that should hopefully reduce the urge to charge in the store in a mad dash for the best deals.
A Mixed Weather Forecast for Shoppers
6:28 p.m. EST on Thursday, Nov. 22
Some shoppers may be getting wet tonight and into tomorrow.
Weather.com's forecast suggests scattered precipitation throughout the country on Friday. The Northwest is due for rain starting tonight and lasting through tomorrow in much of the region, and showers are also likely for the western edge of the Northeast on Friday. If you're in the Midwest you're likely to get either snow or rain starting tonight and lasting through tomorrow, with parts of the region getting up to five inches of snow.
It's not entirely clear how much of an impact inclement weather has on retail sales. Malls saw increased foot traffic on Black Friday 2010 despite cold and wet conditions, though that was partly attributable to the recovering economy.
Richard Nemet of Metar Weather, which sells insurance products to protect businesses against the effects of unforeseen weather, tells us that rain showers typically don't have a big impact on retail sales, though he says significant precipitation could push more of the action online. Snowstorms are a different story, but he doesn't think a few inches of snow should deter midwesterners.
"If you saw six inches of snow in Maryland it might have a major impact, but if it's six inches in the Midwest, they'll say, 'Okay, just plow it and we'll go out," he says.
Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.