Months of super-secret discussion, military-level strategic planning and teenage-vampire movie hype levels converge in a single pre-dawn ritual each November.
The day after Thanksgiving, or Black Friday as it has come to be known, kick-starts the holiday shopping season for millions.
For Central Valley retailers, preparations have been intense and expectations are high as they hope for a more robust shopping season than last year.
But instead of just crossing their fingers, many retailers are getting proactive, extending their hours and amping up their sales to give customers every enticement to shop.
"This is the first year of my 18 years of Christmases at malls that I've actually had retailers call and say, 'Can we open early, can we open early?' " said Maria Halstead, Vintage Faire Mall senior property manager. "We have more hours than ever before. I think they're excited about the season and want to give the guests more hours to shop."
All the stores in Vintage Faire will be open by 6 a.m. Friday, an hour earlier than last year. Mall anchor stores J.C. Penney and Sears will open at 4 a.m. and Macy's at 5 a.m. when the general doors to the mall also will open.
A Turkey Day first
Forever 21 will even be open on Thanksgiving, a first for the mall. The fast fashion retailer, which recently expanded to fill two floors of the site of the former Gottschalks, will be open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. that day.
"I guess it speaks to the times that retailers are excited about the shopping season and want to give shoppers the opportunity to shop," said Janice Curtin, the mall's senior marketing manager.
Last year, more than 70,000 shoppers came through the mall the day after Thanksgiving.
Much of the hype around Black Friday centers on the discounts. Retailers trot out one-day sales and limited door-buster deals which can have eager customers lining up for hours -- sometimes days -- before the store opens in the wee hours on Black Friday.
"Oh, man, I've seen people with electrical generators in line," said Gianne Javier, a Best Buy employee. "Yeah, the first year people lined up the day before. But every year, it's always like one more day in advance. People showed up four days before last year. This is my fourth Black Friday, so who knows now."
The Elk Grove Best Buy employee said the day is elbow-to-elbow in the store, but planning keeps it from being chaos. Stores start their preparations in January for next Christmas, Javier said.
The staff goes through a dry-run rehearsal the Sunday before Black Friday. On the day itself, employees hand out vouchers for the big-ticket door-buster items, so those in line first are guaranteed their desired product and those in back know if all hope is lost. Staffing is up by about 20 percent and checkouts are added in the major departments.
Crowd control is no small thing. At large retailers such as Toys R Us, Target and Kmart, it is critical to keep shoppers and employees safe. Last year, a Wal-Mart employee in Long Island, N.Y., was trampled to death by crowds racing to get inside as the doors opened.
While national retailers grapple with crowd control, local retailers struggle with how to stand out.
Instead of opening at the crack of dawn, Keller's Gifts in McHenry Village in Modesto will open at its customary 10 a.m. Friday, but stay open one hour later until 7 p.m.
"We're really pushing ourselves," joked co-owner Cherie Keller. "We're not like the discount big box stores. We're pretty traditional; we don't compete with the big box strategy. That's not how our business has run -- it's why so many people like to work here."
Keller said the store will have specials that day and serve popcorn in its Christmas Gallery. She said while the store has a longtime loyal clientele, it is trying to attract newcomers to the area with its new Christmas Web site, www.kellerschristmas.com.
Keller touts originality
"The one thing we hear over and over (from customers) is when they go into a mall, they will see the same set-up in every store," Keller said. "But what is great about independents is we are different, there is more unexpected. We change things up."
Fellow McHenry Village retailer Valley Sporting Goods is gearing up for Black Friday with its equivalent of the door-buster special. The store will open an hour earlier, at 8 a.m.
"It is among the biggest shopping days of the year for us with the first Christmas shoppers out there looking for deals," said sales manager Kelly Morford. "I feel we definitely have to compete more with Internet sales nowadays. Honestly, with the way the economy is, we are pulling together as much as we can every day."
Still, deep discounts aren't the only way businesses are trying to lure shoppers. The city of Modesto and the Downtown Improvement District have partnered for the second year to offer free downtown parking the day after Thanksgiving. Shoppers can park without cost from 7 a.m. Friday to 7 a.m. Saturday in one of seven city-owned lots and garages.
Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2284.