Why Open Stores Early, When the Internet Is Open 24 Hours a Day?

A handful of large retailers are opening their doors on Thanksgiving to get a jump on “Black Friday” sales.

But the strategy might backfire. Not only are employees upset that they’ll have to staff the stores instead of being able to stay with their families, the move could cannibalize the retailers’ own online and mobile efforts.

Historically, shoppers have lined up in the early hours on the day after Thanksgiving — which has come to be known as Black Friday — to race into stores and be the first to scoop up discounts ahead of the holidays.

This year, stores are jumping the gun by opening a day earlier. Wal-Mart will open at 10 pm, two hours ahead of last year’s opening; Toys “R” Us will open at 9 pm, an hour earlier than last season; and Target will open for four hours when the clock strikes midnight.

On behalf of employees, Change.org has kicked off a petition, “Tell Target to Save Thanksgiving,” which argues that night openings rob hourly and salary workers of time off with their families.

But there may also be an economic reason to maintain standard practices.

Most of these retailers have major online presences and multiple mobile applications, including on the iPad. If they are open 24 hours a day online, must they actually open the doors, too?

After all, Amazon.com is never considered closed.

To get a sense of the strategy, we talked to someone who works on mobile and online strategy at one of the major retailers that is opening early. He told AllThingsD that he was worried about the impact opening early will have on mobile traffic, since traditionally their peak traffic hits between 3 am and 5 am, before stores open on Black Friday.

If customers have the option of visiting the stores in person earlier, it’s unclear whether that pattern will continue — and whether people will do some extra shopping while killing time standing in line waiting for the doors to open.

Even though mobile is still a small contributor compared to online traffic or store traffic, the retailer in question has scaled its infrastructure to accommodate this early-morning surge.

In general, the 2011 holiday season is expected to drive record sales online and from mobile devices.

Chase Paymentech, which analyzes information from the Top 50 e-commerce retailers, reports that online sales are up 25 percent compared to last year. A separate study by IBM predicts that traffic to retail sites from mobile devices is expected to more than double this month from the last holiday season, reaching 15 percent of all visits to retail sites. Last year, on “Cyber Monday,” mobile visits totaled only 3.9 percent.

But Andrew Lipsman, VP of industry analysis at comScore, said he did not believe the impact of opening early would be very significant.

“Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday are not huge online spending days,” he said. “So, even if sales are relatively soft, it should not have a significant impact on the full season for online retailers. At the end of the day, it will likely be a rounding error — if anything.”

ComScore’s data excludes sales made on tablets or mobile phones, but it estimates that those devices account for a minor amount of e-commerce spending — roughly 3 percent.

Here are the key online shopping dates in 2010:

Target Photo Credit: djLicious.

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