published Friday, November 29th, 2013

Chattanoogans buy into 'Gray Thursday'

The first shoppers, Cade and Brittany Alison, enter into the Toys R Us in Hixson during the "Gray Thursday" sale on Thursday. The Alisons arrived at the store at 11:30 a.m. for the 5 p.m. sale.
The first shoppers, Cade and Brittany Alison, enter into the Toys R Us in Hixson during the "Gray Thursday" sale on Thursday. The Alisons arrived at the store at 11:30 a.m. for the 5 p.m. sale.
Photo by C. B. Schmelter.
  • photo
    A line of cars prepares to leave the parking lot of the Walmart in Hixson during the "Gray Thursday" sale on Thursday.
    Photo by C. B. Schmelter.
    enlarge photo

Area shoppers carved their turkeys, wolfed down some pie and immediately got in line, wallets in hand.

Sales associates, however, had been there for hours before.

Yesterday, the notoriously frantic store openings of Black Friday started earlier than any year before -- establishing the new nickname of "Gray Thursday" -- around Chattanooga, but shoppers were still willing to brave packed crowds to make a deal on Thanksgiving.

A line of 200 bundled consumers-to-be was waiting at Toys R Us on Highway 153, one of the earliest chains to open nationwide, accompanied with coffee and sweatshirts on a balmy 43 degree evening.

They would join more than 140 million Americans expected to shop during the long Thanksgiving weekend.

Brittany and Cade Alison, a couple from Chattanooga, were the very first ones in line at the Hixson toy outlet. They arrived at 11:30 a.m. in what has become an annual shopping tradition for them.

The store would not open until 5 p.m.

"It's just something we've always done," Brittany Alison said. "We're not even looking for anything in particular."

Store manager Theresa Wade says her Toys R Us is one of many that sees return customers every year for Black Friday sales, and the frequent shoppers made the transition to the earlier Thursday entrance window.

The Alisons were actually planning to be done in time to have their Thanksgiving feast.

"Our family is having it at 5 p.m. this year," Brittany Alison said. "So we're going to be a little bit late."

Exactly 27 minutes after the doors opened, the Alisons would be among the first in Toys R Us' extended checkout lines, as boxes of diapers and Disney toys toppled out of their carts.

"Look, we're gonna be on time," an excited Alison said as Cade wheeled the cart through aisle four.

Those same toys and diaper crates were being used as aisle blockades in the rear of the store, ensuring customers would snake and weave through the aisle sections in an orderly fashion -- all the while, having the opportunity to wait next to available products.

Kisha Durham, a customer service specialist at the store, said the "Gray Thursday" concept may be new, but the employee role has been a longtime coming.

"The buildup to this day has actually been going on for months," Durham said. "The toughest part has been getting trucks in and out during the last two weeks."

But what about the new Thanksgiving hours? Customers seem to be interested, but are employees on board?

"I'd rather work today," she said. "For sure. I absolutely do not want to be here tomorrow on Black Friday, when everyone's due in."

And Chattanooga area stores kept up with the madness the best they could. Books-a-Million, which does roughly 40 percent of its business during the holiday season, opened at noon.

Kmart had been open since 6 a.m. Thursday, and will be open until 11 p.m. Friday night, a stunning 41 consecutive hours.

Wal-Mart, the largest employer and business in the United States, would inevitably have to deal with largest crowds. The 24-hour outlet on Highway 153 opened its special Gray Thursday deals at 6 p.m., allowing savvy savers to jump in a line for wristbands.

Wal-Mart introduced a "one-hour guarantee" with three items in 2012, giving customers the chance to buy the items they wanted most before they sold out.

This year, they wheeled out the deal for 21 separate items ranging from iPads to 32-inch HDTVs. There were only enough wristbands for the number of those products on the shelf, so customers were free to shop for other goods while employees stocked their guaranteed item.

Wal-Mart's corporate office did not give permission for Hixson store management to speak with the Times Free Press, but issued a press release regarding their standout strategy of offering "guarantees" to their market base.

"Some other retailers advertise great deals, but may only have a handful of products available," CEO and President Bill Simon said in the release. "We've improved this year's shopping experience so customers can spend less time in line."

Carry Stevenson, manager of the Kohl's on Highway 153, said the best way to deal with working on Thanksgiving and Black Friday is merely to have the right attitude.

Although his Kohl's store on Highway 153 saw long lines -- with an 8 p.m. start time, and scores of carb-loaded customers -- he placed emphasis on quick service and a cheerful, late-night atmosphere to keep the crowds moving.

"I say it's our Super Bowl," he said. "We've got to keep a good frame of mind."

Within 45 minutes of the store's opening, the line of customers awaiting checkout reached through more than half of the store. The long-term verdict on Gray Thursday's success might have to wait until the holiday season ends, but Stevenson says his crew was up for the Thanksgiving Day challenge.

"My employees really looked at the positive," he said. "They were going to be up anyways, and it's far better than getting up extremely early like we have before."

Contact staff writer Jeff LaFave at jlafave@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

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