If you think Black Friday couldn’t get worse, you got it wrong. The biggest shopping day of the year is beginning earlier than ever this year with retailers such as Target, Best Buy, Kohl’s, Gap, Toys r Us and Macy’s opening their doors as early as midnight, or even earlier in the case of Wal-Mart. The reason, of course, is the soaring economy and retailers’ eagerness to get consumers into their stores to start their shopping celebration as soon as possible.
If it were a regular year, retailers would probably be able to get away with it pretty easily. But this is not a regular year. This is the year of Occupy Wall Street and consumer backlash against unjustified bank fees, so it’s not surprising to see some public protest against retailers, organized this time by employees who are upset about the fact that they can’t enjoy the holiday with their families because the stores open so early.
The main retailer that is in the line of fire is Target. Anthony Hardwick, a Target employee in Omaha, Nebraska, started a petition on Change.org protesting Target’s plan to open at midnight. He explains there that “a midnight opening robs the hourly and in-store salary workers of time off with their families on Thanksgiving Day. By opening the doors at midnight, Target is requiring team members to be in the store by 11 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. A full holiday with family is not just for the elite of this nation — all Americans should be able to break bread with loved ones and get a good night’s rest on Thanksgiving!”
The petition, which called Target to push back the opening of retail stores on black Friday to 5 a.m., went viral and received almost 200,000 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon. Earlier this week, a Minnesota Target employee delivered six red-and-white Target bags full of 190,000 hard-copies of the petition to Target Corp. headquarters in Minneapolis. Target’s official reply was that “the decision to open at midnight on Black Friday was not one we took lightly. As that is the busiest shopping day of the year, it is imperative that we be competitive. Our guests have expressed that they would prefer to kick off their holiday shopping by heading out after their holiday celebrations rather than getting up in the middle of the night.”
Now, let’s be clear. Target is no different than the other retailers who decided to open early. I believe that it’s only accidental (or bad luck, from their point of view) that they have become the target (Ed. note: heh) of this protest. Nevertheless, it is also important to note that Target is a company that prides itself for being socially responsible. In their latest sustainability report, their CEO writes: “Offering great products, fantastic prices and a fun shopping experience is just one part of the story. We also devote our personal energy, leadership skills and business strengths to supporting the communities where our guests and team members live, work and shop.” Do you really think that opening Target stores so early is serving in any way the communities where their customers and employees live? I doubt that.
Target is not the only retailer with social responsibility commitments that seem to be in contradiction with the decision to open the stores as early as midnight. Best Buy is another example for a retailer that is supposed to be a sustainability leader and doesn’t act like one in this case. According to the New York Times, Brian Dunn, the chief executive of Best Buy, said that the midnight opening became an operating imperative for Best Buy after competitors moved their openings back, but he feels terrible about it. At least his response is more human than the one Target provided, but at the same time it makes me wonder – if it’s so terrible, why do you need to do it? Is it really in your best interest to adopt a bad practice even if others do so?
This is exactly the place where you expect businesses that say they are committed to sustainability to show leadership and act responsibly. Just think what would happen if Target or Best Buy declared that as a token of appreciation to their devoted employees and customers they are opening the stores at 8 a.m. on Friday. They can even add special online deals on Thursday night for sleepless customers. Taking such step would not just benefit their stakeholders, but will also help these businesses to differentiate themselves from other retailers and gain more customers who prefer to shop with retailers who respect their employees and let them celebrate the holiday peacefully.
Unfortunately, it won’t happen this year. But at least we see the seeds of resistance to a practice that symbolizes the existing broken economic model that tries to build an economy on the wrong building blocks. After all, is there a better description for Black Friday than the words of Tim Jackson in ‘Prosperity without Growth’: “… people are being persuaded to spend money we don’t have, on things we don’t need, to create impressions that won’t last, on people we don’t care about”?
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is also an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.