Black Friday Falls One Day Too Soon

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Try this: Go onto a busy sidewalk and stare straight up. As people walk by, note how many look up as well. Some will just take a cursory glance, others will look as long as you do, some, not willing to admit that they have no idea of why they are looking up, will pretend to see something.

Few will ask you what you are looking at. Almost no one will fail to look up at all.

The Friday after Thanksgiving has been the traditional start of the shopping season in the U.S since the 19th Century. Friends and families made a tradition of going out in the morning and staying out all day, returning in the evening with shopping bags filled with gifts. Retailers would have parades and other special events tied to the day. Shop windows would be decorated with flying reindeer, Santa’s elves and nutcrackers. Christmas trees would dominate department store lobbies. Early on, it was not a day for special sales. Sales are designed to bring shoppers into the store. Why have a sale if they are going to come anyway?

But over the years, this changed as competition grew. Retailers started offering bigger and better deals to entice shoppers into their store instead of their competitor. Then, to encourage them even further, they started opening their doors earlier and earlier – 7 am, 5 am, then midnight. People lined up for blocks to get a scanner or a wide screen TV at rock bottom prices.

Now, retailers are opening on that most sacred of secular holidays, Thanksgiving. This started out with just one or two retailers. Now, most big box stores are opening as early as six pm, and offering “Door Buster” deals to entice shoppers. Turn on the TV this time of year, and you’ll see commercial after commercial from these retailers, all advertising early hours.

The idea of making retail employees come in to work on Thanksgiving has created a backlash. People are urging others not to shop at those stores, employees are refusing to work, protests have been organized. Meanwhile, some argue that retailers have a right to be open when they want. And there certainly some workers who don’t mind, or even welcome, going into work. They may receive a pay differential for the holiday, and can use the extra cash. Or they may just hate being with their families.

Of course, overdoing it on wine at dinner will be out if you have to spend the next eight hours working a cash register.

I cannot find any information on whether or not opening on Thanksgiving increases retailers’ bottom lines. Sure, they may increase their sales, but many of the sales are on discounted items. The profit margins are narrow, and after paying the cost of staff and utilities, how much money is leftover?

The fact that there doesn’t appear to be any information on the profitability tells us something. If retailers were increasing net income, they’re PR departments would be working overtime to make sure everyone (or at least, all their shareholders) to knew it.

It also needs to be remembered that Black Friday (and its backwards extension into Thanksgiving) is not the biggest sales day of the year. It is the busiest, with lots of foot traffic, but this foot traffic does not necessarily translate into sales. Normally, the Saturday before Christmas is the biggest sales day. This makes sense, since the procrastinators have to get something for everyone one their list, and get it fast. They don’t have the luxury of time.

So why have retailers started opening early, forcing their employees to come in to work on a day that has been reserved for overeating ever since Abraham Lincoln declared it a National Holiday in 1863? They say it is to be able to keep up with the competition. In other words, everyone else is doing it and we don’t want to be left behind. They are no different than those people looking up in the sky just because you do.

When I’m at a meeting discussing an issue that needs to be solved, one phrase that makes me cringe is, “What are our competitors doing?” My response, “Who cares?” This question assumes that our competitors are doing the right thing, that they are successful. While we might learn something from others, if we want to be leaders we can’t always follow someone else.
Some of these retailers will also say that opening Thanksgiving helps build excitement and set the tone for the all-important holiday shopping season. Perhaps, but it can also lead to ill will. As mentioned, there has been a backlash. Poll after polls shows that a majority of Americans feel that retailers should be closed on Thanksgiving so that employees can spend time with their families. They make Ebenezer Scrooge (in his pre-ghost days) appear downright saintly.

As for me, you won’t see me set foot in a store on Thanksgiving. After a full meal, apple pie for dessert (I don’t like pumpkin – a sacrilege, I know), I’ll curl up on the sofa with my daughters and kick off the season with a holiday movie, maybe Elf or White Christmas or It’s a Wonderful Life.

And that is a better deal than any retailer could offer.

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