Walmart Black Friday starts 8 p.m. Thanksgiving. Should you shop that early?

Walmart is moving the start of its Black Friday sale up two hours, to 8 p.m. Walmart's early start could mean that Thanksgiving Day is poised to become a major shopping holiday in its own right. 

John Gress/Reuters/File
Shopping carts are seen outside a Walmart Express store in Chicago in this 2011 file photo. The retail giant is starting Walmart Black Friday early, opening at 8 p.m. Thanksgiving Day. That's two hours earlier than last year.

As Walmart goes, so goes the busiest shopping day of the year.

The retail giant revealed its Black Friday ad and plans Thursday, two weeks before Thanksgiving. The news isn't so much the deals themselves, (though there are a few headliners, including a Vizio 60-inch smart TV with built-in WiFi for $688, and an iPad 2 plus a $75 Wal-mart gift card for $399).

The bigger story is the timing. This year, Walmart will open its doors for Black Friday shopping at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving – a full 2 hours earlier than last year. And to keep early-bird shoppers in the stores, deals will be introduced in three waves: 8 pm for toys, video games and gaming systems, home, and apparel; 10 p.m. for name-brand electronics, including Nook e-readers, Nikon cameras, and Samsung HDTVs; and 5 a.m. Friday for the rest, including jewelry, tires, and a few extra TVs.

Additionally, Walmart is offering a guarantee on three of the more popular items, including the iPad 2, for customers in line at the stores between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m.

“If any of these items happen to sell out before 11 p.m. local time, Walmart will offer a Guarantee Card for the item which must be paid for by midnight and registered online,” read Walmart’s press statement. “The product will then be shipped to the store where it was purchased for the customer to pick up before Christmas.”

Walmart is a perennial Black Friday sales leader, with enough clout to influence how other retailers capitalize on the massive earning potential of the holiday shopping season. The discount retailer’s early start, then, could mean that Thanksgiving Day is transitioning to a shopping holiday in its own right.

But, assuming Walmart is successful, the shift probably won’t happen industry-wide until next year, predicts Dan de Grandpre, CEO and editor-in-chief of “Walmart has been the leader for  seven or eight years. At this point, it's too late for other stores to play catch-up,” he says. “Most [other retailers] already have their schedules scoped out, and it's difficult for a large chain to schedule overtime [for workers] on such short notice. With Walmart, you see what’s going to be more typical next year.”

Hints of widespread Thanksgiving eve shopping could  already be seen in 2011, when Walmart opened at 10 p.m. before Black Friday (Toys R Us, in a bit of one-upmanship, opened up at 9 p.m. JCPenney, meanwhile, did not open until 4 a.m. on Friday and had a disappointing holiday season, de Grandpre points out.

But the shift into Thursday has its limits, since Thanksgiving itself is chiefly about eating and spending time at home with family, he says. “There is going to be some fine-tuning over the next few years to figure out what the right  timing is. They can pull off 8 p.m., and maybe 6 p.m., but probably not noon. There will be a cutoff point where it is less effective.”

What’s more, Walmart is getting tougher to compete with on price alone. Its biggest competitor has long been Amazon, whose online status and low overhead allowed it the flexibility to match and beat almost any price Walmart could throw out. But unlike previous years,  Amazon is now required to pay sales tax in several states, including New York and California (with more to follow). That will make price-matching more difficult than it has been in the past. And most customers have to pay shipping. 

“Amazon is going to keep competitors on their toes, but  there is no substitute for a complete store experience,” Mr. de Grandpre says. “If people can get it that day, they’ll go ahead and get it from Walmart.”

So which customers should wolf down their turkey dinners and line up at 8 p.m.?

“You really need to want the product pretty badly,” de Grandpre says. “Consistently, Walmart specials on Black Friday have been available online, so most people can casually shop online and get most of the same deals. And last year, most things were available with free shipping or 97-cent shipping.”

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