Even before the Thanksgiving dinner had settled in stomachs Thursday, retailers across the Bay Area flung open their doors to eager shoppers looking for great holiday gift buys.
The official kickoff to the holiday shopping season, which not long ago occurred in the dawn hours of the Friday after Thanksgiving -- known as Black Friday because it represented the time retailers became profitable -- has given way to new, frenzied efforts by retailers battered by years of a sluggish economy to get a share of consumers' wallets before their competitors do.
"This is a competitive time of year," said Toys R Us spokeswoman Adrienne O'Hara. "It's important. We prepare for this all year long."
Shoppers filed intoa Walmart in Fremont Thursday evening, looking for sales on consumer electronics items such as computers, tablets, video game consoles and televisions sets. Many of the customers had a game plan for the rest of Thanksgiving night and into Black Friday.
"After Walmart, I'm going to Target next," said Katrina Anderson, a Fremont resident. "Then I will be going to Babies R Us, Toys R Us. Eventually I will get to Sears and Home Depot."
Sheila Greenlaw, 35, of Campbell was in line at 10 a.m. Thursday to make sure her soon-to-be 3 son gets a surprise on Christmas morning, a mini-Cadillac Escalade he can drive around. The early morning stake-out at the front of the Toys R Us store in San Jose was worth it -- she saved $150 off the
"I saved for quite some time," said Greenlaw, who had never shopped Black Friday before, and definitely not on Thanksgiving Day.
With an improving economy, which some Thursday customers noted as they shopped, retailers are hoping for an improved shopping season, which represents 20 to 40 percent of their revenue for the year, experts say. Still, they have their work cut out for them. While many in the Bay Area's tech industry have weathered the downturn virtually unscathed, other workers have seen their savings drained and nerves rattled through layoffs and pay and benefit cuts. For these consumers, budget shopping has become a norm.
"The mentality is: 'I will look for what I like, but I have a budget and when I meet my budget, I am done," said Kirthi Kalyanam, director of the Retail Management Institute at Santa Clara University. "It leads to the kind of competition you are seeing: 'We want to grab the money from you as soon as possible because if we don't the other guy will.' "
Economists and consultants estimate a modest 2012 uptick in seasonal spending of between about 3 percent and 4 percent over last season. The National Retail Federation anticipates 147 million people will hit the malls and stores Friday through Saturday, a slight dip from 152 million last year.
One possible issue that could give consumers pause is the ongoing budget dispute in Washington as President Barack Obama and the Republican leadership negotiate a deal to avoid the so-called "fiscal cliff" next year, when significant government spending cuts and tax hikes will kick in if a long-term deficit plan isn't hammered out, said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for the NPD Group. If there aren't signs of a deal in the works, it could cause consumers to pull back during the final week or two in December, he said.
Furthermore, there aren't any "hot items" consumers are itching to get their hands on this year that would give them an extra incentive to flood the malls, Cohen said.
"Value is still on the minds of most customers," said Michael Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers. "Two years ago, consumers were looking for the lowest price point. Now they are willing to spend a little bit more as long as they perceive it as a high value."
For many stores, revenues from November-December shopping have drifted downward from about 25 percent of the total revenue in the 1980s to just over 21 percent now -- an estimated $250 billion for stores that include general merchandise, clothing, furniture, electronics and appliances, he said.
"We have moved from a period when discounting holiday goods did not occur until after Christmas to an environment in which discounting occurs well before Christmas Day," Niemira said.
As a result, many consumers aren't willing to whip out their credit cards unless they believe they are getting the best of possible deals, he said. "The problem with event-driven strategies is there is little incentive to be out there shopping."
The Thanksgiving shopping weekend, though, is as important as ever for retailers.
The earlier retailers grab the attention of consumers, the better, Cohen said.
"Your wallet is full of money, your credit card is not maxed out and you are ready to spend," he said. "You are not only buying gifts, you are also buying for yourself."
Most retailers are cautiously optimistic about the shopping season, said Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, a retail consultant.
Nonetheless, for retailers, the season of mirth is also a season of white-knuckle tension, he said. The Thanksgiving weekend can create momentum for stores -- or signal empty aisles for the holiday season, Beemer said. Shoppers are much more likely to return to stores they visited during the seasonal shopping kickoff weekend than those they ignored, he said.
"Retail is a game of momentum," Beemer said. "Black Friday starts the momentum for the Christmas shopping season. You live or die based upon whether you win Black Friday."
Contact John Boudreau at 408-278-3496. Follow him at Twitter.com/svwriter.