Are Macy's, Target and Kohl's Ready For A <i>Really</i> Early Black Friday?

Macy's, Target and Kohl's this week all announced they'll be opening brick-and-mortar stores at midnight on Black Friday, as the start of holiday shopping keeps carving farther into Turkey Day. That presents a tricky E-Commerce issue, though: When does Black Friday start online? If those door-buster deals show up for E-Commerce shoppers at midnight in New York, that means they'll be available in San Francisco at 9:00 PM on Thanksgiving night. After all, it seems silly to try to block Web shoppers from buying online before their local stores have opened. (Really, this year you're going to refuse to take their money?)

But there's certainly a difference between a marketing event that begins at midnight and one that starts in the middle of prime time on the West Coast. Last year, Kohl's started its Black Friday sales at 3:00 AM New York time, midnight Pacific time, with Macy's and Target an hour later. That didn't make much of a difference online—it was still late-night across the U.S. But wind those times back a few hours, and suddenly it won't just be night owls who are hammering on E-tail sites.

That could really stress systems that already struggle under the Black Friday load. Such situations have gotten better year by year—most of last year's Black Friday outages were brief—but a big influx of shoppers who can't go to the store yet but can get the same bargains online could dramatically shift traffic and load patterns.

The usual calculation has been that opening stores earlier on Black Friday doesn't actually help sales. It's the same group of shoppers who are willing to hit the malls that early, and if they start at 3:00 AM or midnight, they'll just stretch out their shopping to match the available hours. The main result, according to some retail analysts, is that sales don't rise, even though the costs of keeping the stores open do.

But if West Coast online shoppers really do show up early? That could actually make earlier Black Friday hours more profitable for a change—at least if the sites can handle the load.