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Black Friday gets trampled in November rush

The once-vaunted shopping day is falling victim to its success, retailers’ overreach

At its peak, Black Friday featured long lines of people eager to have first crack at the so-called doorbuster sales retailers loved to promote.
At its peak, Black Friday featured long lines of people eager to have first crack at the so-called doorbuster sales retailers loved to promote.(Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/File 2012)

Black Friday, long considered the single biggest shopping day of the year and the ceremonial start of the holiday season, has died, succumbing to rampant competition and complications from the Internet. It was nearly 50 years old.

The proliferation of other days that offer blockbuster savings robbed the traditional Black Friday sale of its distinctive retail identity. Now, the Friday after Thanksgiving is no longer the only day shoppers can get a Samsung Galaxy S5 for a penny. Or a 50-inch LED TV for $218.

“It’s the end of an American shopping tradition,” said Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director at SRG Insight, a retail consulting firm in New York.

Black Friday fell victim to a “Darwinian destruction” in which retailers created an extended calendar of Big Shopping Days by combining the doorbuster deals that defined the day after Thanksgiving with everyday discounts, he said.

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In states that allow retailers to open on holidays, shoppers will instead break down the doors for the traditional doorbuster bargains on Black Thursday — formerly known as Thanksgiving.

Black Friday will also be displaced as the biggest shopping day of the year by Super Saturday — the last Saturday before Christmas. And retailers are expanding the use of online specials they can offer throughout the season.

As an executive at Walmart quipped recently, the new Black Friday should simply be called “November.”

Since Massachusetts prohibits retailers from opening on holidays such as Thanksgiving, Black Friday here will maintain some of the midnight madcap rush atmosphere that many families and friends have turned into a tradition.

But long before they haul their turkey-stuffed bodies to the mall, many shoppers will have already launched their gift-buying at Target, which began hawking its holiday doorbusters on Nov. 10, or at Staples, which rolled out its deals a week later.

And Walmart, which more than any other retailer elevated the one-day frenzy of shopping to a national pastime, unwrapped its first holiday deals Nov. 1

In most states other than Massachusetts, many retailers are opening on Thanksgiving evening, or making their doorbusters available online that morning; some will start their specials on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

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“The retailing community is so anxious about business that they are all trying to get headstarts on each other,” said Madison Riley, managing partner and retail analyst for Kurt Salmon in New York. “They are not really sure how the season will pan out, and they are continuing to do earlier and earlier offerings.”

The term Black Friday, which dates to the 1960s, appears to have been first used by police in Philadelphia in reaction to the hordes that flocked to the malls on the day after Thanksgiving. Retailers later adopted and redefined the phrase to signify the day when their businesses turned a profit for the first time that year — as in from red ink to black.

For decades, retailers have dropped prices on Friday to kick off the holiday season, a period that typically accounts for about 20 percent of annual sales. An arms-race mentality soon took over as retailers vied to outdo their competitors with ever more outrageous discounts — DVDs for $1.99, or half off a Sony PlayStation.

Black Friday had already begun to lose some of its pop in recent years; total sales in 2013 were down 14 percent from just two years earlier. But some analysts question whether retailers are solving anything by moving Black Friday to other days, particularly the Thanksgiving holiday.

“You’re incurring extra costs and you’re probably having to pay a bit more to bring people in for those holiday hours,” Riley said.

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On the other hand, getting people to spend more time in stores during a longer shopping period may result in more impulse purchases, increasing overall sales.

“You will spend more, the more times you’re out,” said Michael Tesler, a retail professor at Bentley University. “Retailers have to beat last year, so if they don’t have better merchandise or better deals they need more hours.”

The National Retail Federation expects sales in November and December to increase by a modest 4.1 percent this year, to $616.9 billion.

Among the one-day deals that Target Corp. offered earlier this month was $50 off the popular Beats Studio headphones. The Minneapolis-based chain is also making some specials available on its mobile shopping application during the week of Thanksgiving and in stores the Wednesday before the holiday.

As for Black Friday itself, the only deal that Target has this year for just that one day is a 10 percent discount on gift cards.

Walmart is using the long Thanksgiving weekend to roll out its deals in stages, beginning online Thursday morning and running through Cyber Monday. The best discounts are scheduled for stores outside Massachusetts that are open on Thanksgiving day: an iPad Mini for $199 and a $30 gift card.

Black Friday itself will feature deals on less-popular items like tires and jewelry.

Staples has also arrived early to the party, offering “Black Friday for Business” deals on Sunday that included $100 off a mesh desk chair. Traditional steeply discounted offers will go live on Thanksgiving and include an Asus laptop for $99.99 and a free Kindle with any laptop purchase of $399 or higher.

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“It gives customers the chance to shop when and where they want, not just on one frenetic and frantic day,” said Alison Corcoran, Staples’ senior vice president of North American stores and online marketing.

“We want to give them access to deals that they can take advantage of on their own time.”

Taryn Luna can be reached at taryn.luna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @TarynLuna.