While you eat turkey, major retailers play chicken

Only a few shopping hours left till Christmas!

Enjoy your Thanksgiving dinner early this year. Or, better yet, turn it into a picnic as you camp out on line at Macy’s, Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Target, HHGregg, Kohl’s, or the Richmond big-box retailer of your choice. Black Friday’s going to be a little early this year.

From Black Friday to Black Midnight

In case you didn’t know it from all the advertising activity — the spam, the coupon ads and direct mail, the JCPenney “plan your attack” previews, the return of Target’s obnoxious holiday shopping spokeswoman to television — retailers are trying to grab as many of your gift dollars as early as possible.

To that end, opening times, usually scheduled around sunrise, have now moved to zero-dark-hundred, with many being as early as midnight.

And you’re going to be seeing even more of the Target shopping lady because they’ve doubled Friday, making it two days long.

Apparently, it pays to advertise

According to the NPD group, consumers are responding. They project that 17% of consumers plan to start their Christmas shopping, up from 12% last year. Some 74 million say they’ll definitely be shopping, while another 77 million say they’ll wait to see if the bargains are good enough to justify battling the crowds. And crowds there will be.

The National Retail Federation predicts that as many as 152 million people will be gift-shopping Thanksgiving weekend (up from 138 million last year) — and it’ll feel like they’ve all converged on Short Pump, Stony Point, Midlothian Turnpike, Willow Lawn and other shopping meccas throughout the Richmond metro area.

Strategic schizophrenia

Marketers seem to be of two minds about their strategies. While their couponing and advertising scream “Price!” they think they’ll capture market share through value, which is not quite the same thing.

“A high percentage of people are planning to take advantage of sales, coupons and direct-mail offers,” says Ted Marzilli, senior vice president-global managing director at YouGov’s BrandIndex unit.

That’s price.

But “value is important and particularly important in the economy we’ve been in for the last two or three years,” he adds.

A YouGov BrandIndex survey shows how conflated these two conflicting attributes have become. The eight brick-and-mortar retailers that respondents said provide the mostvalue are all brands that push low pricing: Target, JCPenney, Kohl’s, Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Sears, Old Navy and Marshall’s, in that order. Hmmm.

(By the way, the YouGov questionnaire takes pains to ask respondents to divorce value from pricing. That’s good. But respondents to their online surveys are self-selected. That’s not so good.)

Thankfully, you don’t have to be there

Of course, you can subject yourself to the rigors of Black Friday shopping in the comfort of your own home. Amazon has stretched Black Friday into a whole week and has a button for their deals at the upper right-hand corner of their home page. “We’re searching for the best Black Friday deals everywhere — including Black Friday deals other stores are planning — so we can meet or beat their prices and bring them to you even earlier,” the site claims.

You win the game of chicken

The question retailers are grappling with is how low they can go and how soon, according to Marzilli. “For retailers, it’s a game of chicken,” he explains.

Like most games in the free marketplace, it’s you, the consumer, who wins. Which is yet one more thing to be thankful for.