Black Friday backlash: Early openings a blessing and a curse

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) - For Anthony Hardwick, Thanksgiving has special meaning. Last year, he proposed to his girlfriend, Denise, in front of her whole family during the holiday.

This year though, Hardwick will be working. A part-time employee at Target in Omaha, Neb., he is scheduled to start his 10-hour shift at 11 p.m. In order to make it through the night, he'll need to sleep on Thanksgiving Day.

"My fiancée is sad because I was supposed to have Thanksgiving dinner with her family, and talk about wedding plans," he said.

Hardwick started an online petition in the hope that Target would push the store opening back to Friday to allow workers to spend more time with family.

"It's kind of a raw deal," he said.

Hardwick created the petition, entitled "Tell Target to Save Thanksgiving," through the online advocacy site, which collected more than 80,000 signatures as of Tuesday.

This year marks Target's earliest opening ever. Target, Best Buy, Macy's and Kohl's are all opening at midnight on Thanksgiving eve. Wal-Mart recently announced plans to open its doors to the public at 10 p.m. then Toys R Us followed suit, announcing it would open most stores as early as 9 p.m. the day before Black Friday.

"We have heard from our guests that they want to shop following their Thanksgiving celebrations rather than only having the option of getting up in the middle of the night," Target said in a statement. "Target will offer holiday pay to all hourly team members who work on Thanksgiving Day."

Thanksgiving Day openings have been a boon to retailers during the economic downturn. The number of people who shop on Thanksgiving -- both online and in stores -- rose to 22.3 million in 2010, about double the amount just five years earlier, according to the National Retail Federation.

Last year, the number of people who began their Black Friday shopping at midnight was triple the amount in 2009.

"Retailers have been through a very difficult three or four years," said Michael Hicks, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University Muncie, Ind. "They're looking for a competitive advantage anyway they can."

But once the retailers move into Thanksgiving Day, "it's hard to back off of these things," he said. "How do you put the genie back in the bottle on what has traditionally been a day without consumers?"

Some consumers believe retailers have gone too far.

"I used to love shopping on Black Friday," said Sarah Caron, 31, "but the earlier hours -- or worse, opening on Thanksgiving -- have been a complete turnoff to me. That takes people away from their families on a day that should be all about family."

Caron said she plans to refrain from shopping at any store that opens on Thanksgiving Day, "because of the complete disrespect for our culture, heritage and their employees."

For some consumers though, Black Friday shopping is considered part of the Thanksgiving holiday.

"About a third of consumers want to go shopping after Thanksgiving dinner," explained Kit Yarrow, consumer psychologist and chair of the psychology department at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. "They feel like Thanksgiving is ending when the dishes are done and Black Friday is starting."

Amanda Ostrowski, 25, is embracing the new hours.

"I'm thankful these stores are opening on Thanksgiving," said Ostrowski, who has made Black Friday an annual event -- even camping out at Best Buy last year. "It's easier to wait outside during the day and this year, we don't have to sleep outside."

Most other shoppers, though, "find it [an] offense that a national holiday is being encroached upon," said Yarrow.