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At stroke of midnight, Black Friday

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Reuters / November 11, 2007

NEW YORK - US mall operators are betting the early bird gets the worm during this year's Thanksgiving holiday shopping weekend.

More shopping malls plan to open at midnight Thanksgiving night, after the turkey is done, holding events like "Merry Midnight Madness," to kick off the competitive three-day holiday shopping weekend.

In an extreme example, Fashion Outlets of Las Vegas said its 100 designer outlet stores will be open on Thanksgiving Day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

But not everyone is jumping on the bandwagon.

The Friday after Thanksgiving, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. will open the doors at its discount stores that are not open 24 hours a day at 5 a.m. - the same as last year.

Circuit City Stores Inc. will also open its stores at 5 a.m., the same time as it did a year ago, while Best Buy will still open at 5 a.m. but close at 10 p.m. - an hour earlier than last year.

"Were we gaining enough by that last hour to justify keeping everybody there another hour?" a Best Buy spokesman said. "This year, we decided to try closing at 10 and let people go home and get some rest."

The holiday season is crucial for retailers because it can account for 25 percent to 40 percent of annual sales. Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, is considered the official start of the holiday shopping season.

"It's a bit of a 'me-too' " phenomenon, said Linda Shea, global managing director of customer strategies at Opinion Research Corp. But she said retailers need to make sure the investment pays off, and they are not filling their stores with tired employees, who would rather be sleeping than helping customers.

"In a market where the forecasts are not great for the holiday season, I suppose the hope is, 'Well, if we just start earlier, we just let them know earlier,' " we'll win sales, she said. "But all of that costs money."

The early openings come as retailers are on pins and needles, worried that the housing market meltdown, credit crunch, and higher food and fuel prices will crimp consumer spending.

The early openings are retailers' attempts to try to grab shoppers' dollars before their wallets slam shut or they spend their limited budgets at a competitor's store, said Candace Corlett, a principal with consulting firm WSL Strategic Retail.

"There's something very serious going on here and that is this panic among everyone in the business that shoppers are going to run out of money," Corlett said.

But she said the gimmicks will not necessarily persuade shoppers, who may be facing higher mortgage payments or declining home values, to accumulate more debt this holiday.

Instead, analysts expect Thanksgiving will only mark the start of what will be a highly promotional season, and the battle among retailers to ring up sales after a lackluster autumn and eke out holiday profits will extend until Christmas Eve.

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