More Places to Shop Round the Clock

As schedules get busier, some Americans are forced to do their widget shopping at 2 a.m.

Everything was set for Leona Newell's wedding. The flowers were ordered, the dress fit perfectly.

But at midnight, the night before the big day, she hit a major snafu: The workman redoing the wallpaper at her mother's house - site of the reception - ran out of glue. But unbowed by this sticky situation, the rushing bride drove 30 minutes away to the place she may long remember as having saved her wedding day - a Home Depot hardware store that's open all night.

Standing triumphantly in the paint section at 1 a.m., clutching a tube of glue, Ms. Newell proclaims victory, her crisis averted by the latest shopping trend - the growing number of big retailers, such as Home Depot, Wal-Mart, and Kmart, that stay open 24 hours.

Not all late-night customers have such dire emergencies, but a growing number of Americans have reason to spend odd hours traipsing through the aisles. Whether it's because they work long hours and can't do basic shopping during the day, or because they have mile-long to-do lists, or because they're among the growing number of people working second shifts, these all-hours shoppers are giving rise to a growing 24-hour culture in America.

"It's not as though sleep has become less popular," says Gerald Celente, director of the Trends Research Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y. "Our society is so geared toward work that we've become crunched for time." He notes that people work 180 hours a year more than they did 20 years ago, according to Census surveys. People shop at 2 a.m. because they have no choice, he says.

Furthermore, the work environment is becoming more flexible - with people working as desktop publishers and telemarketers from home and younger and older workers squeezing well-paying part-time jobs into their schedules.

Are we really that busy?

All of this may make for more-crowded schedules, but some observers argue that Americans may believe they're more busy than they really are.

The supposedly rushed American watches TV for an average of more than 20 hours a week, notes University of Delaware professor John Robinson. The co-author of "Time for Life," he argues that people only feel more busy, perhaps because they are faced with so many choices.

In the name of convenience, retailers have begun providing shoppers with many more scheduling choices. The 24-hour trend began years ago as gas stations and convenience stores tapped the midnight market by offering a full tank or a loaf of bread. Many supermarkets followed.

But now, big stores, which for years have used skeleton crews to stock shelves at night, have added a few cashiers and are getting a new wave of customers on the cheap. Kmart, for instance, has opened 99 mega-stores with 24-hour schedules since 1991.

"When you have two parents working, and each with different schedules, this becomes very important," says Steven Pagnani, a Kmart spokesman. "They might need milk and bread, and it's convenient to pick up a pair of socks, too."

Early birds, rush-avoiders

At the Home Depot in Secaucus, N.J., - the one that saved Newell's wedding reception - customers range from contractors who arrive at 4 a.m. to load up on materials for an early start to young couples pushing strollers with sleeping infants at 2 a.m.

Some take advantage of midnight shopping to avoid the rush. Says 1 a.m. shopper Bill Arnold, "If I come in Saturday morning, I have to waste an hour and a half with parking and crowds and lines. This takes me 15 minutes."

But the trend doesn't mean big retailers' mall-bound cousins are likely to switch to 24-hours soon.

"At malls, it would take hundreds of employees, and you'd have to turn on the heat and lighting and all that," says Mark Schoifet, spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers, which represents malls.

And some neighbors of the all-night businesses are not thrilled to hear car doors slamming and radios playing at 2 a.m.

"People don't think about those things when they go out to buy a quart of milk," said Rick Pruetz, city planner in Burbank, Calif.

In one Burbank neighborhood, an all-night supermarket drove residents to distraction. They complained enough that the city passed a new ordinance this spring restricting late-night hours.

In theory, store owners can get a special permit to stay open overnight. In practice, no one has even tried.

Meanwhile, Home Depot and Kmart are concentrating on more urban outlets. The Secaucus store is surrounded by highways, fast food stores, and industries. In Deerborn, Mich., a Kmart super store caters to the factory workers with shifts around the clock.

But where some see a happy customers, trend-watcher Celente warns of a society on the edge. "It's very sad," he said. "It all started when stores stayed open on Sundays in the 1970s. It was sort of inevitable that it would become around the clock."

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