NEW YORK — Forget the bird — shopping was on the minds of many Thursday as people sought an early start to the frenetic season of gift buying.
Most said they liked the idea of stores being open on Thanksgiving so they could avoid Friday's onslaught of the retail masses.
"I woke up this morning and I said, 'I'm finished cooking, I'm going to do a little shopping!' " said Cynthia Bess, pushing a cart filled to the brim with a stereo, clothing and toys at a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Gates, N.Y., near Rochester.
Most major department stores were closed, but several discount chains such as Kmart, Payless ShoeSource Inc. and Big Lots Inc. opted to open and lure shoppers who wanted to start early and avoid the large hordes that will descend on "Black Friday."
At a Kmart in Milford, Conn., 60 shoppers with coupons in hand lined up in the chill and rain, awaiting the store's 7 a.m. opening. Another 20 sat ready in their cars. First in line was Tony Rogers, 39, of Stratford, Conn., wearing a Santa Claus cap. He said he queued up at 5 a.m.
"I work in retail, so I don't get to go shopping tomorrow," Rogers said.
Other shoppers just went straight online, to click and buy.
For the third season in a row, Sears offered customers early access to Friday's deals, allowing them to order on the Web on Thursday, and then pick up merchandise in the stores over the weekend. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. again promoted its online shopping by offering early discounts, including cashmere throws under $60 and silk pajamas priced under $30, for the five days through Black Friday. Customers also got a preview of Friday's "early bird" store specials at Walmart.com, and the company advertised heavily on the Internet.
"In general, stores are making a bigger push for the total weekend, starting from Thursday through Monday," said Michelle Bogan, a retail strategist at Kurt Salmon Associates.
She noted that Thursday had "always been a protected day, a day that people spend with family." But with consumers starved for time, "retailers are starting to realize it is a great time to draw people into the stores. Customers are excited to have another alternative," Bogan said.
As the nation gears up for Friday, considered the official start of the holiday shopping season, the collective consumer mood has been brightened by falling energy prices. But retailers are still being aggressive on discounting and want shoppers to buy early.
Last year, the busiest shopping day was Saturday, Dec. 18, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. The day after Thanksgiving was the second busiest day.
For Michelle Taylor, Thanksgiving Day meant watching a parade and then walking over to Kmart, her grandson in tow. But the Philadelphia resident said she'll spend less on presents this year because of higher utility costs.
"Definitely, I'll be cutting back. Bills go up higher, but the pay doesn't go up higher," said Taylor, 44. "You really need to take care of your home. It's nice to have a lot of toys, but you have to have heat and electricity."
Anna Roig of Milwaukee said she prefers shopping on Thanksgiving, because it's less chaotic than the following day.
"Today I can get whatever I need — bedspreads, electronics," Roig said at a Kmart store near Milwaukee. "Friday is painful, waking up at four in the morning just to wait in line."
But Debbie Goetzke of West Allis, Wis., said she loves the frenetic pace of Thanksgiving weekend shopping. She headed out at 8 a.m. Thursday to buy a newspaper for the ads so she could start planning her Friday shopping strategy.
"I finished my Christmas shopping in the beginning of October," she said. "I just go out on Friday because I love the hustle and bustle."