By Dhanya Skariachan
(Reuters) - Target Corp and Toys R Us Inc are joining the U.S. retailers offering holiday specials earlier, including on Thanksgiving Day, to kickstart the biggest selling season of the year.
The stakes are high for U.S. retailers, which earn more than a third of their annual sales in the holiday season. Traditionally, they have waited until Black Friday, the day after the U.S. Thanksgiving, to make their big end-of-the-year push.
That is changing as retailers try to get shoppers into their stores before their rivals do, making Thanksgiving Day about more than eating turkey and watching football.
"The retail environment is always competitive - and most especially during the holiday season," said Troy Rice, executive vice president of stores and services at Toys R Us.
While retailers say people are eager to head to stores after their Thanksgiving meals, some employees wish they could still have the day off.
After Thanksgiving, which is a national holiday, many businesses and schools are closed on Friday. The New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq are open on Friday but close earlier, at 1 p.m. ET (1800 GMT).
Target said it planned to open at 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving, three hours earlier than last year, when it was closed on Thanksgiving and opened at 12 a.m. on Friday.
Toys R Us, which opened its stores at 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving night last year, will open them an hour earlier this year.
"Customers repeatedly told us that they liked being able to do their Black Friday shopping after they had finished their turkey dinners, so they didn't have to spend all night outside in line and could sleep in on Friday," Rice told Reuters.
Several petitions have been created on website Change.org suggesting that chains keep their doors shut on Thanksgiving. One petition from a Target employee who wanted the chain to remain closed on the holiday and avoid "Thanksgiving creep" had more than 148,000 supporters by Monday morning.
Target said that, anecdotally, many of its employees get excited about being in the store for Black Friday. It said it aimed to come up with staffing schedules that would meet the needs of workers and customers on Thanksgiving.
Gap Inc will open more than 1,100 of its U.S. stores across its Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic chains on Thanksgiving, up from nearly 1,000 locations in 2011.
"There is a demand to have access to our stores on Thanksgiving Day," said Tom Sands, executive vice president of Old Navy's U.S. unit. "That demand was probably there last year. The additional stores opening this year is a response to that."
Old Navy plans to open about 780 shops on Thanksgiving this year, up from about 750 last year, Sands said.
J.C. Penney Co Inc, which is trying to reverse a steep slide in sales while radically transforming its stores, said it would open at 6 a.m. on Black Friday.
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Most retailers will spread their offers out over several hours to try to catch shoppers at various times, including the wee hours of Friday morning. Toys R Us, for example, will have one round of "door busters" at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving and another at 5 a.m. on Black Friday.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc, the largest retailer, said last week that its specials would start at 8 p.m. local time on Thanksgiving, two hours earlier than last year.
Wal-Mart's Sam's Club chain stays closed on Thanksgiving, as does rival warehouse club Costco Wholesale Corp. Both will have online specials, however.
Sears Holdings Corp's Sears and Kmart stores will be open on Thanksgiving Day, a decision the company said stemmed in part from feedback from its "Shop Your Way" loyalty plan members who wanted more flexible shopping times.
Last year, Kmart was open on Thanksgiving, and the Sears department store chain was closed.
"We understand that many of our associates want to spend time with their families on the holiday, so Sears and Kmart will staff its stores with seasonal associates and those who have volunteered to work on Thanksgiving Day," Chief Merchandising Officer Ron Boire said earlier this month.
Best Buy Co Inc, Macy's Inc and Kohl's Corp said their stores would remain closed on Thanksgiving and open at 12 a.m. on Black Friday.
(Reporting By Dhanya Skariachan in New York, and Jessica Wohl and Nivedita Bhattacharjee in Chicago; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)