How Black Friday ate Thanksgiving and destroyed itself

November 25, 2013, 10:00 AM UTC

FORTUNE — They’re now as synonymous with Thanksgiving as turkey and stuffing: petitions asking retail stores to delay their Black Friday openings until after Thanksgiving, or at least until after the tryptophan has worn off. One of the latest opposing Target’s 8 p.m. Thanksgiving Day opening pleads with the store to reserve the holiday for celebrations with family and friends.

Give it up. Thanksgiving is gone for good.

Reaching this point is a sad achievement. After all, Black Friday had such an innocent origin. Stores began to use the term in the 1970s because the day after Thanksgiving marked the start of the profitable holiday shopping season, which helped shift retailers’ books from red to black. According to Amanda Nicholson, professor of retail practice at Syracuse University, the term may go back even further than that, to the city of Philadelphia in the 1960s. Police officers there reportedly used it to describe the day after Thanksgiving, when residents from the city and surrounding suburbs stormed Philadelphia’s stores in search of holiday gifts. In the 1990s, stores started using Black Friday as a marketing ploy, Nicholson says, and customers began making sport out of snagging deeply discounted goods “while supplies last!” Black Friday’s Midnight Madness — when customers camped outside stores all night in the cold with the hope of buying, say, a flat screen TV for 60% off — became a cultural phenomenon.

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That all changed in 2010. Following the bruising holiday retail seasons of 2008 and 2009, several stores turned the competition up a great big notch, launching their doorbuster sales on Thanksgiving Day itself. Toys “R” Us announced its earliest time ever — 10 p.m. — and Sears (SHLD) said it would be open on the holiday for the first time ever, from 7 a.m. to noon.

The announcements, on the heels of the Great Recession, exacerbated an already competitive retail market and launched an all-out arms race that has yet to let up. Each year since, stores have pushed their Black Friday deals earlier and their prices lower in a battle to capture holiday sales that could make or break their annual earnings. “In the retail community, most stores feel that if they aren’t meeting or exceeding what the competition is doing, they’re left behind,” says Joel Bines, co-lead of the retail practice at advisory firm AlixPartners.

In 2011, Toys “R” Us bumped its opening up an hour to Thanksgiving at 9 p.m., while Wal-Mart (WMT) kicked off its doorbuster sales at 10 p.m., and Target (TGT), Best Buy (BBY), Macy’s (M), and Kohl’s (KSS) all welcomed shoppers at midnight for the first time. Last year, Toys “R” Us and Wal-Mart opened at 8 p.m.; Target did so at 9 p.m.

This year, holiday season retail sales are projected to grow 2.4%, the smallest increase since the end of the recession, according to researcher ShopperTrak. This year’s shorter holiday shopping season — there are only 26 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas instead of the typical 30 or 32 — won’t help. “We’ll be lucky to get 2%,” says Nicholson.

The dire outlook has pushed the Thanksgiving Day shopping trend into unprecedented territory as one of the last defenses against the encroachment on holiday time crumbled. In October, Macy’s announced that, for the first time in its 155-year history, it would open its 800 stores on Turkey Day at 8 p.m. “after families across the country have finished their holiday meals and celebrations.” That announcement, paired with Kmart’s decision to stay open for 41 hours straight starting at 6 a.m. Thanksgiving Day, prompted a fresh wave of outrage by customers who denounced stores for infringing on employees’ family celebrations and further commercializing a holiday rooted in offering gratitude.

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While well intended, the petitions and protests will prove fruitless. Some stores like Costco (COST) and Nordstrom (JWN) have vowed to stay shut on Thanksgiving, but most of the biggest players in the holiday retail space have already crossed that line and they’ll never look back. So long as one store is open on Turkey Day, others — fearing the loss of customers to earlier sales — will follow. Thanksgiving — as holiday — “is now for the birds,” says Bines.

That’s because for all the criticism of the Thanksgiving Day shopping hours, customers are showing up. Spending during the holidays has seen only modest increases in the past few years — 3.2% in 2012 and 3.7% in 2011, according to ShopperTrak. But in comparison, spending on Thanksgiving Day increased 55% in 2012, as customers forked over $810 million. In 2011 it saw 34% growth. Shoppers aren’t necessarily spending a whole lot more money, they’re just making purchases earlier. As long as opening on Thanksgiving continues to make money for retailers, Nicholson says, they’ll never close their doors again.