Holiday shopping trumps Thanksgiving
Traditional ideals give way to consumerism as retail employees leave family celebrations to work their shifts
Tyrone Richardson / The Morning Call
Thousands of retail workers across the Lehigh Valley will have to cut their Thanksgiving celebrations short to punch in at big-box stores, where Black Friday will start even before Thursday ends.
Following Walmart’s lead, the nation’s biggest retailers are kicking off the holiday shopping season earlier than ever.
After Walmart announced it would be opening its doors at 10 p.m., other stores moved up their start times too. Target, Macy’s, Bon-Ton, Kohl’s and Best Buy will open at midnight. The turkey will barely be cold when Toys R Us gets going at 9 p.m. Kmart will be open all day.
“It’s a competitive issue,” said Jeff Green, president and CEO of Phoenix-based retail consultant Jeff Green Partners. “Nobody wants their competitor to have the upper hand.”
Retailers, vying for a piece of the shrinking pie of discretionary spending in a stagnant economy, say they are only giving anxious shoppers what they want. But the encroachment of consumerism on a day that is perhaps the nation’s closest approximation to a sacred secular holiday has prompted others to push back.
Some critics see Black Friday as yet another small tear contributing to the larger degradation of the nation’s moral fabric. For others, it’s a matter of workers’ rights along the lines of other populist causes at the heart of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
“What is Thanksgiving about? It’s about giving thanks. It’s not about consuming,” said Dan Gottlieb, a therapist who hosts “Voices in the Family” on WHYY public radio. “These stores are conspiring to get us to stand in line … to buy stuff that nobody cares about while our neighbors are hungry.”
Anthony Hardwick created an online petition titled “Tell Target to Save Thanksgiving.” As of Tuesday, it had collected more than 194,000 signatures through Change.org.
A part-time employee at a Target in Omaha, Neb., he is scheduled to start his 10-hour shift at 11 p.m. In order to make it through the night, he’ll need to sleep on Thanksgiving Day.
“A midnight opening robs the hourly and in-store salary workers of time off with their families on Thanksgiving Day,” his petition reads. “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!”
Some people — hospital workers, gas station attendants and grocery store clerks, to name a few — have long worked on Thanksgiving. But those ranks have mostly been limited to service industries. What’s different now is people are being asked to sacrifice their holiday in the name of, well, stuff.
Best Buy is promoting a 42-inch flat-screen television for $199. Handbags and wallets at Kohl’s will be marked down 60 percent.
The so-called doorbuster deals are often limited to the first customers in the store.
Target, for example, is advertising an iPod Touch for $195 “while supplies last.”
“We have heard from our guests that they want to shop following their Thanksgiving celebrations rather than only having the option of getting up in the middle of the night,” Target said in a statement.
But a random sample of Target shoppers at the store’s Airport Center location in Hanover Township, Lehigh County, turned up a very different sentiment: sympathy for the store’s employees.
“They’re going to be working their butts off the whole holiday season,” said Valerie Lawbert of Coplay. “It’s ridiculous. Give them a day off.”
Cyndy Herbold of Fountain Hill said she has no desire to shop on either Thanksgiving or Black Friday. She was disturbed this year to see Christmas shopping displays in some stores before Halloween.
“They’re too greedy,” she said of stores that make their employees work on Thanksgiving. “People should be with their families, but stores want to skip right over Thanksgiving because it’s good for the bottom line.”
Though some people may be dismayed and even shocked by what they perceive as the eclipse of Thanksgiving, Penn State University history professor Paul Clark sees the development as a predictable consequence of the decline of labor unions.
“To the degree that American workers have had holidays off, it’s largely because in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s they organized unions and negotiated,” he said.
Union membership today is about a third of what it was a half-century ago, when more than 30 percent of workers belonged to a union.
“Unions have such relatively little influence in the marketplace today that employers aren’t particularly worried about losing workers,” he explained. “They can make these changes without any concerns, because employees basically have no place else to go.”
The result, seemingly, is an unchecked retail cold war. And big-box stores are competing not only with each other, but also with online retailers.
The Monday after Thanksgiving is now billed Cyber Monday — a day when people return to work after the holiday break and browse for gifts online.
Overall, shoppers are expected to spend an average of $395 on gifts this year, down 15 percent from the average gift spending of $466 a year ago, according to a recent survey by industry research firm Deloitte LLP.
Green, the retail analyst, said Thanksgiving night openings could prove to be a critical advantage for brick-and-mortar stores.
“They’re now giving [shoppers] the option of staying up late and sleeping through the morning,” he said.
The point was echoed by Bud Bergren, president and CEO for the Bon-Ton Stores. “The decision to open at midnight was based on our customers’ feedback — they wanted the convenience of shopping earlier,” he said in a written statement.
Gottlieb, on the other hand, suggested shoppers should be asking themselves not what they want, but rather what they need. The “Voices in the Family” host recalled one of his patients who once told him she would “spend herself happy.”
“Well, she spent herself. That’s for sure,” he said. “The happiness never quite materialized.”