After successful all-nighter Black Friday sales, this year's theme of marathon retail hours continues right up to Christmas, another sign of the steep competition from online and mobile retailers that has nudged brick-and-mortar holiday shopping to new extremes.
Macy's set the tone of round-the-clock convenience for the holiday season's homestretch when it announced that for the first time most of its 800 stores will be open from early morning Dec. 21 until midnight Dec. 23, with some stores staying open through Christmas Eve for more than 80 hours of continuous shopping. Now rival retailers are feeling the pressure to keep their doors open at all hours, and small businesses say they're struggling to draw budget-conscious customers into neighborhood stores and eke out a place in the 24-hour cycle of holiday sales.
Macy's isn't the first to do round-the-clock shopping, but its announcement turned heads. Macy's often sets the precedent for big retail -- it was the company's midnight Black Friday opening last year that spurred earlier openings at most big retailers this year.
"Macy's takes the lead and others fall in line," said MaryAnn Bekkedahl, a retail specialist and co-founder of Swizzle, an email service that manages retailer promotions.
Earlier this month Toys R Us said it will stay open for 88 consecutive hours beginning Dec. 21. And expect to hear more announcements of extended hours in the coming days, analysts say, as retailers contend for the last trickle of holiday spending.
"I think that you're probably going to see a kind of a domino effect," said Bob Hetu, a retail research director at Gartner.
But for some stores, it's too late to change their schedules. Kohl's, Sears and Kmart already announced their stores will close no later than midnight on the final shopping days before Christmas.
"But it doesn't mean that type of approach won't be used next year," said Kevin Sterneckert, Gartner's research vice president. "The battle is under way."
Left on the sidelines in this extreme holiday shopping skirmish are small and boutique businesses, which generally don't have enough staff, money or customers to stay open around the clock. David Eiland, owner and manager of San Francisco specialty gifts store Just for Fun and Scribbledoodles, said he stays open an hour later most days before Christmas. But he could never stay open all night -- he's already working double shifts and doesn't hire seasonal staff members.
Eiland said he doesn't consider Toys R Us or Macy's direct competitors to his small Noe Valley shop, but he acknowledges that "big-box is making our jobs a bit harder."
Mark Cosio, owner of San Jose bike shop iMinusd, said, "It wouldn't be economical for us to stay open" around the clock. He relies on social media to get customers into the store for sale events.
"We've got to offer all these promotions to keep up," Cosio said.
Some boutique businesses are trying out promotions for the first time, recognizing the discount frenzy that has swept through malls and department stores. Women's clothing store Brandy Melville in downtown Walnut Creek broke tradition when it held a Black Friday sale this year.
"Our store normally never does sales," said store visual manager Arianna Pardini.
Like most small-business owners, Carol Yenne, co-owner of Small Frys, a San Francisco children's store, knows her success depends on offering items that shoppers won't find at big retailers. But exclusive items tend to be more expensive, and Yenne said she has lost some budget-conscious customers.
"People are going to choose to buy what I sell," she said. "Or, they're going to see where they can get Carter's onesies the cheapest."
And "cheapest" is still the priority for many shoppers. Despite a strong showing on Black Friday, consumer concerns about the economy and looming tax hikes have kept sales relatively flat.
"The fiscal cliff, it's having an impact," said Gartner analyst Hetu. "It's this general feeling of uncertainty that's out there."
The 24-hour openings could be the moneymaker to offset consumer belt-tightening. Stores that stay open around the clock are a procrastinator's dream, and last-minute shoppers can be a retailer's gold mine.
"A last-minute shopper will buy anything," said retail specialist Bekkedahl. "It's 'OMG, I have to buy something right now.'"
And there are enough last-minute shoppers to go around. A poll released Dec. 7 by the NPD Group and CivicScience showed that half of holiday shoppers hadn't started their shopping.
But Macy's customers Jill Parks and Doris Spencer are more prepared, and they're unimpressed with the store's extended hours. The two were heading into Macy's at Westfield Valley Fair on Wednesday morning; Spencer had a few last gifts to pick up. But her daughter, Parks, had already finished her shopping and said the 24-hour sales were excessive.
"I don't think it's necessary" during the holidays, she said. "I think people should go home and be with their kids."
Contact Heather Somerville at 925-977-8418. Follow her at Twitter.com/heathersomervil.