November 7, 2011, 4:50 PM

Bedeviled stores try opening at the witching hour

They’ve no doubt noticed that consumers push aside their turkey dinners long enough to shop.

Macy’s, Target, Kohl’s and Best Buy have all announced they will launch their Black Friday sales as the clock strikes midnight on Thanksgiving Day night, hoping to gain an advantage over rivals in the intense day-after-Thanksgiving competition. It won’t help them compete with online retailers on Thanksgiving Day itself, however.

And Thanksgiving Day is becoming a more important online shopping day, as consumers become increasingly accustomed to having easy access to the Internet at home. Not only will 77% of U.S. homes have broadband Internet subscriptions by 2012, according to research firm Gartner, but Wi-Fi is increasingly the norm. Lounging on the couch with your laptop or iPad and browsing the web during commercial breaks of football games, or while waiting for the turkey to finish, promises to turn into as much of a ritual as loosening your belt after that extra slice of pie.

That trend showed up in the U.S. online sales numbers from last Thanksgiving Day: $407 million, up a hefty 28% from the previous year, according to web measurement firm comScore Inc.

Web retailers have the advantage of not having to dragoon legions of employees to staff physical stores to make those sales. Their web platforms do most of the work without human intervention. Hands-free selling is turning into a big advantage as shoppers become accustomed to being able to buy at any time of day or night, wherever they happen to be.

Naturally, the retail chains that have made huge investments in their bricks-and-mortar stores will compete more intensely for consumers’ dollars this holiday season, and will try to turn their stores to their advantage. For instance, Barnes & Noble plans to devote more space in its stores to demonstrating its Nook reader and new Nook tablet, hoping to draw consumers away from the comparable devices sold by Amazon.com, which has no physical stores.

The challenge for Amazon, and for all online retailers, is to get around their inability to make a face-to-face presentation to consumers. How-to videos and live chat are just two of the ways e-retailers can overcome that obstacle. Live chat does require a human to be available, although that employee can chat from home while stirring the gravy. And the great thing about a video is that the people who make it can be gathered around the Thanksgiving table while the video they created sells products to a world of online shoppers.

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