Holiday shopping enters a “gray” area…

It’s a holiday tradition nearly all of us have partaken in: set our alarms for an ungodly hour, drag ourselves out of bed well before dawn, pick up a double-shot espresso latte from the nearest coffee shop, and fight the year’s most congested traffic in a race to snag discounts and deals on what’s come to be known as “Black Friday.” Though somewhat tortuous, it’s an annual ritual—and the unofficial kickoff to the holiday shopping season—the American public has anticipated the Friday after Thanksgiving for decades. But with more and more retailers succumbing to competitive pressure and opening their doors earlier and earlier, is Black Friday on its way to obsolescence, overshadowed by a new, commerce-oriented “holiday” on Thanksgiving itself?

Perhaps the most telling sign of the imminent end of an era: when Macy’s announced earlier this year it would usher in the holiday rush at 8pm on Thanksgiving night for the first time in its 155-year history. The new hours give holiday shoppers a four-hour head start on last year, when the venerable retailer opened its doors at 12:01am on Black Friday.

But Macy’s isn’t the only business to open before shoppers and employees alike have even had time to digest their turkey and pumpkin pie. Following its announcement, J.C. Penney promised to open its doors at the same time on Thanksgiving night—ten hours earlier than in 2012—while Toys “R” Us, Walmart, Target, Kmart and Sears have been kicking off their Black Friday sales as early as 8pm for the past few years. Several other chains, including The Gap, Banana Republic and Old Navy, have also opted to stay open for limited hours on Thanksgiving Day in recent years. This “Black Friday creep” and its encroachment on family tradition has led many to declare Thanksgiving a new shopping holiday known as “Gray Thursday.”

This year especially, retailers may be feeling the heat to follow suit and open their doors on Thanksgiving, as there are six fewer shopping days between Black Friday and Christmas, while Hanukkah begins 11 days earlier than last year. In addition, IBM’s Retail Center of Competence reports that Thanksgiving Day online sales have jumped 132 percent over the past half-decade, while according to the National Retail Federation, the average American consumer now buys 40 percent of his or her holiday purchases on the Internet—leaving brick-and-mortar stores taking extreme measures to to bring in traffic and meet their fourth-quarter numbers.

While Macy’s justified its unprecedented jump onto the Gray Thursday bandwagon by saying its decision is “in response to interest from customers who prefer to start their shopping early,” the data suggests more shoppers would in fact prefer spending Thanksgiving at home, not in line at the registers. A recent Accenture survey found that just 38 percent of American consumers are likely to shop on Thanksgiving, while 41 percent consider the day a time for family—not shopping.

But despite resistance by many consumers, Gray Thursday is likely here to stay. As Time contributor Brad Tuttle pointed out after Macy’s October announcement, “The truth is that stores wouldn’t be open if it wasn’t in their best business interest, just as stores wouldn’t launch holiday-season deals in September if shoppers didn’t have an appetite for it. Stores don’t need all consumers, or even a majority, to like the idea of shopping on Thanksgiving as a justification to open early. All they need is a sizable number of fanatical shoppers, and clearly, that’s covered.” iBi