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Black Friday: News Articles about Early Openings Miss the Point

Raz Godelnik
| Wednesday November 20th, 2013 | 6 Comments

crowded day at CostcoSome of you are probably already getting ready for Thanksgiving, reviewing Melissa Clark’s recipe for simple roast turkey, while others are getting ready for Black Friday, reviewing the best apps that will help them find the best deals on this big shopping day.

Many are probably getting ready for both days, which seem to be increasingly intertwined like one big celebration that starts with a large turkey and ends with a visit to a nearby store looking for a really (but really!) great deal. This trend has become even more evident this year with the increasing number of retailers opening their stores on Thanksgiving Day even earlier than they did last year. At the same time, we also have a few retailers, including Costco and Nordstrom, that refuse to open on Thanksgiving.

The question I ask myself (and you): Does anyone care?

Let’s face it: most people don’t really care about the fact that retailers open as early as 6am on Thanksgiving, (Kmart), 5pm (some Toys R Us stores), 6pm (Walmart) or 8pm (Macy’s) and stay open all night, and what it means for those employees in terms of their ability to enjoy a peaceful holiday with their families. In fairness, I guess some people might feel bad about it, especially if they are aware that many employees aren’t paid more for working on Thanksgiving, but nevertheless, it won’t stop them from shopping in these stores.

In other words, the temptation to take advantage of a good deal is stronger than any ethical consideration. And there is also no retribution. Ninety-nine point nine percent of consumers won’t stop shopping at their favorite stores even if they don’t like the way these retailers turn Thanksgiving into another shopping day. They might sign an online petition to feel good about themselves, but that’s about it. And retailers know it very well.

The result is that many retailers see what they believe is an opportunity to make more money by opening earlier on Thanksgiving, that has a small risk associated with it. So can we blame them for participating in this race to the bottom, when they are faced with this imbalanced equation?

I actually used to think we could. I couldn’t understand how companies like Best Buy or Target could totally ignore their sustainability and CSR aspirations on Thanksgiving. But now I see it a bit differently. It’s not that I believe that opening at 6pm (Best Buy) or 8pm (Target) on Thanksgiving and staying open all night is right, but I do feel that if consumers don’t reject this trend, it’s almost impossible to expect retailers to act otherwise.

Well, at least most retailers. Because there are some like Costco, Nordstrom and BJ’s Wholesale Club that understand that by taking another approach, i.e. keeping stores closed on Thanksgiving and opening them at a reasonable hour on Friday (9am in the case of Costco), they can actually extract more value out of this combination of Thanksgiving and Black Friday.

First, they understand that opening early on Thanksgiving might not have as much value as it seems to have. “Historical reference says they’re seeing sales on Thursday at the expense of sales they’d see on Black Friday. It’s bleeding over a bit,” Bill Martin, founder of ShopperTrak, a research firm, told The New York Times.

Second, they see an opportunity to create value for the company through its employees. “Our employees work especially hard during the holiday season, and we simply believe that they deserve the opportunity to spend Thanksgiving with their families,” Paul Latham, Costco’s VP for membership and marketing, told the Huffington Post. “Nothing more complicated than that.”

It’s true that other retailers might depend more on Black Friday in terms of sales than Costco, and therefore have more incentive to extend it into Thanksgiving, but nevertheless it’s clear that Costco is also losing sales when it decides to stay closed on Thanksgiving. It’s also quite clear that Costco feels the benefits, from increasing their employee satisfaction and retention to enhancing their brand, outweigh the costs. Last, but not least, I think Costco and the others understand that this is the way to exercise leadership and differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack, just like Patagonia did two years ago with its Don’t Buy This Jacket ad.

Nevertheless, with all the buzz over which retailer opens at what time, we need to remember that opening stores on Thanksgiving isn’t the problem, but only one indication of the problem. The real problem is the unsustainable culture of consumption where we “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,” as economist Tim Jackson explains.

This culture will still prevail even if all the stores were closed on Thanksgiving, so it might be a good idea to stop asking which retailer opens earlier and start asking which retailer provides us with an alternative vision of sustainable and responsible consumption all year round. It might also be a good opportunity to remind ourselves that we, the people, also have responsibility to act in a more responsible way – after all, it’s us who have replaced the joy of the holiday with the excitement of finding a great deal.

[Image credit: tellumo, Flickr Creative Commons]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and Parsons The New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.


▼▼▼      6 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • http://www.triplepundit.com Nick Aster

    Great perspective. I wonder if things like “black friday” can be though of as barometers for societal health… the less a society craves these things, perhaps, the more culturally healthy it is? Or does that make me a ridiculous snob?

    • jenboynton

      I think you need more narrow definitions of “these things” and “culturally healthy” to make generalized statements like that :)

  • Jenna Wentworth

    Excessive consumption is a Ponzi scheme.

  • groomjo

    It’s sad that the whole point of Thanksgiving, so take pause, reflect, and celebrate, has been so lost in the consumer shuffle and corporate greed. How about reading a book with your kid? Taking a walk? Do we really need more stuff? Why are these values not being taught?

  • Jeff

    “Ninety-nine point nine percent of consumers won’t stop shopping at their favorite stores even if they don’t like the way these retailers turn Thanksgiving into another shopping day.” Really? And 89.63 % of all statistics are made up on the spot. I won’t shop at any of these places that insist on opening on Thanksgiving Day. I find the idea of lining up in the cold for a $199.00 TV and crowding and elbowing my way to the cash register both sad and silly. To each their own, I guess.

  • Tamiam

    Much as a am saddened by the race to the bottom in terms of over-consumption and the way we treat labor, I can’t help but notice the hypocrisy. We’ve never railed at the injustice involved when invisible folks work on Thanksgiving to keep the power on, the toilets flushing, and TV working. Nor do we complain when the bars and restaurants are open, and the online shopping sites function. It all takes people, just not people who are right in front of you.

    To me these campaigns risk looking ridiculous when they miss the larger point: our objection is repulsion at over consumption, and
    to the increasingly unfair labor policies that are placed on those who tend to already be part-time, no benefits, and minimum wagers.