At 9 a.m. Friday, Target employees at the retailer's Columbia Heights location gathered in their daily morning "huddle." Holiday music played, and their boss exuded Christmas spirit: Sporting a Santa hat, merchandising senior executive team leader Matt Roy gave out tastes of Target-brand Christmas products, including pumpkin cheesecake cookies and chocolate mint milk.
"I marked the official start of the fourth quarter this morning by doing the eggnog in my car," Roy joked.
As the biggest retail event of the year approached, Target spirits were high as they attempt to bounce back from a record of lackluster Christmas sales. Last year's holiday numbers fell below expectations, partly due to disappointing returns from a partnership with designer collector Neiman Marcus.
So this year, the retailer is upping its strategy, bombarding consumers with a string of deals and promotions in-store and over multimedia channels, rolling them out in stages to keep customers buying throughout the weekend and the rest of the season.
And even with the store's shiny new promotion plan, it's harkening back to some old-school, family-based Christmas cheer.
At the two-story Columbia Heights Target on Friday, giant Christmas ball-shaped decorations hung from the ceiling above rows of shelves spilling with glittering ornaments, strings of lights, holiday candies and more. The store started "doing Christmas" in September and was "full throttle, 100 percent set for the holiday season" by the end of October, Whitlock said.
Like many other major retailers, Target's beginning its holiday sales earlier and earlier, partly hoping to offset potential losses from a six-day shorter shopping period between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Holiday deals kicked off Sunday with 15 daily online-only deals on Target.com. On Thanksgiving, customers can shop online early in the day and come into th! e store at 8 p.m. to compete for doorbuster deals, many on popular electronics. And Friday offers a 20 percent discount off a storewide purchase the next week if customers spend at least $75.
"It's a startup to an event- the event is Black Friday, but that's really a starting point. It culminates with Christmas," said Target Washington, D.C. District Team Leader Jason Ramey. "The race is just beginning."
Demographics are changing as Black Friday starts earlier: Last year, 36 percent of Millennials- those between age 18 and 34- shopped on Thanksgiving Day, according to the National Retail Federation. With these young shoppers and a nation increasingly connected through smartphones, Target is adopting mobile full force.
For instance, a new "Cartwheel" smartphone app, available to anyone with a Facebook account, gives customers additional sales on specific items if they shop in-store. And Target will continue to integrate social media sharing site Pinterest into its marketing strategies, said Target CMO Jeff Jones.
"It's ultimately all about multichannel," said Target public relations manager Stefanie Mohr. "You have the guest who's… going to shop at home; she's going to shop on her phone; she's going to shop late at night on her iPad; she's going to be here with her kids, so it's really about that convenience factor- no matter where, no matter how, no matter when."
Jake Chapman, corporate strategies vice president at deal-listing website BlackFriday.fm, said some Target bargains are very competitive, including a $229 Element 50-inch LED TV, an Apple iPad Air 16GB for $479 with a $100 gift card and Beats by Dre Solo HD Headphones for $119.
Target's overall strategy looks promising, especially its mobile aspects bringing in "a different demographic" and its later-purchase discount enticing consumers to keep shopping throughout the season, Chapman said. But Akshay Rao, University of Minnesota marketing professor, said Target's numbers might be "muddied" by the rollout of! its Cana! dian stores.
For months, stores have been prepping for their "Super Bowl" of retail, hiring workers, stocking warehouses and shelves, training employees in crowd control and perfecting their minute-by-minute plan for the hectic weekend. Thursday evening, employees will take their spots and open the doors.
"It's the excitement of 'It's here now,'" said Darran Whitlock, store leader of Target's Columbia Heights location in Washington. "You do all the planning, all the organization, [so] when you get to that day, it's like an athlete with a Super Bowl. It's finally here. You've done all this; now let's get in and have fun."
While munching on holiday treats Friday morning, Target managers spoke to their workers about the coming season, thanking some of them for taking on longer shifts and working more days a week.
For the season, Whitlock typically hires between 40 and 80 workers to add to the 300 at his store. Black Friday employees get paid time and a half and can choose break room movies and special meals, he said. He said it was exciting for his employees to work on Thanksgiving.
But Ross Steinman, a psychology professor at Widener University, disagreed, saying many employees now had to give up their holiday.
Target is preparing for more families to come shopping Thanksgiving night, Ramey said. Steinman said consumers were realizing early starts might not be "the worst thing."
"We can celebrate Thanksgiving, watch football, have somewhat of an early dinner and now we can involve the kids in this," he said. "Before, it might not be as much as an event for kids- getting up at 3 in the morning and waiting in the cold."
This year, consumers are also planning more and are less likely to make impulse decisions, Steinman added. At Target, customers will have access to more information before the doors open, including a map given out to people in line Thursday night listing additional sales and showing where they're located. Customers can also reserve specific pop! ular item! s in these lines to make sure they'll get one once they're allowed inside.
It's all to help with communication and crowd management, Whitlock said.
"[We're training employees] on controlling the lines, controlling the emotional response of 'maybe you're not going to get a TV,'" he said. "When people don't know where to go, then anxiety builds up. We want to limit the anxiety. So we tell them where to go and how to do it."
With competition from online-only platforms such as Amazon.com, managers hope that personal interaction will help bring people out to the stores. As Target winds down its Black Friday preparation and gets ready for deal-hunting crowds Thursday evening, it hopes to give customers more of a holiday experience- a new Thanksgiving tradition after the family has finished the last of the pumpkin pie.
Managers' advice to shoppers? Plan ahead.
"You have your map; you have your things; come in on Wednesday and walk around," Ramey said. "Be prepared. Do you have the gloves? Do you have the hat? We sell all that here, too."