Suzette Parmley/The Philadelphia Inquirer – As Gail Kerick began her holiday shopping in earnest last week, she was steadfast in her intent not to shop at all on Thanksgiving Day.
“Absolutely not,” said Kerick, 64, a retiree from Morrisville, as she combed the women’s sweater racks at a local Kohl’s. “Everyone needs a family day. You can shop the day before, and the day after, but definitely not on Thanksgiving.”
That sentiment is shared by at least 50 national retailers, including Home Depot, REI, Lowe’s, and Nordstrom, along with the Mall of America, the country’s largest. All decided to close on Thanksgiving, holding Black Friday to Friday, Nov. 25, and giving workers the holiday off.
Three Philly-area malls – Plymouth Meeting, Moorestown, and the Gallery II – owned by Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust will also close.
Some call it a seismic shift for retail with the unprecedented number of store closures this year; others call it a cultural backlash to corporate excess.
Black Friday has traditionally been the kickoff to the critical holiday shopping season. Some sectors, such as jewelry stores, generate a third of their annual sales in November and December alone. For almost all department stores, such as JCPenney, Macy’s, and Sears, the period accounts for about a quarter of annual sales, and explains why they open on Thanksgiving, according to a report this month by Cushman & Wakefield and the National Retail Federation (NRF).
Yet, despite the announced closures, this holiday season remains on track to be a profitable one, thanks to the increasing clout of digital shopping and aggressive, early promotions.
The retail federation anticipates holiday receipts in November and December will top $655 billion, up 3.6 percent from last year.
A 2016 Deloitte Holiday Survey found that consumers nationally, and in the region, feel positive about the economy overall and with their own financial situation, setting the stage for a robust shopping season. The arrival of several big-name retailers in Center City and a new $250 million wing boasting mostly luxury brands at King of Prussia Mall can’t hurt either.
Another notable occurrence this year, whose effect won’t be known for a while, was the election season. The tumult seemed to depress shopper turnout in the race’s final days.
“The nation had been consumed with the election more than ever before, and we don’t know yet whether that has caused a chill on shopping and spending,” said Steven H. Gartner, managing director for retail services at CBRE Inc.
Analysts say the big day, when stores make a last-ditch effort at year’s end to move into the black, has lost luster.
“Because retailer ‘door-buster savings’ are common throughout November, it has taken the wind out of Black Friday,” said retail consultant Jeff Green. “What seems to be more important to retailers is now the spread of sales over the seven-week period beginning Nov. 1, and more specifically, the week before Christmas, which now seems to have much more importance than just Black Friday.”
In the past, opening first on Black Friday was a quest for bragging rights in ads.
But the Saturday before Christmas weekend, Dec. 17, is expected to be this season’s busiest shopping day, not Black Friday.
The mighty Mall of America in Minneapolis, which includes an indoor amusement park, announced Oct. 5 that it was closing on Thanksgiving. Only three of 520 stores in the mall, with each having the choice, have chosen to open.
“We think Thanksgiving is a day for families and for people we care about,” said Jill Renslow, Mall of America’s senior vice president of marketing. “We want to give this day back.”
Most of the 1,200 mall workers will have Thanksgiving off, though some maintenance and security staff must monitor the three open stores. The mall officially reopens at 5 a.m. Black Friday.
Closer to home, in deciding to close three area malls, PREIT CEO Joseph Coradino said those facilities generated the least traffic over recent years during the holiday weekend.
PREIT wants to celebrate “the holiday, while also meeting the demands of a high-volume shopping weekend,” he added.
Employee respect may also be gaining.
“It’s a cultural shift,” said Ramon Avila, a marketing professor at Ball State University and founding director of its H.H. Gregg Center for Professional Selling. “With the economy in much better shape, these same workers could be facing larger crowds than in previous years. They will be dealing with more inventory and customer issues than ever before. You can’t expect them to be fresh and work the entire holiday season by having them come in on Thanksgiving, too.”
Noelle Nelson, a professor of marketing at the University of Kansas, said REI, the outdoor sports apparel company, got a ton of positive media for closing on Thanksgiving last year, one of the few to do so.
This year, some firms are openly critical of retailers doing business on the holiday. The electronics and appliance chain P.C. Richard & Son, for example, ran an ad last Thursday in the Inquirer attacking stores that stay open on Thanksgiving as “un-American” and “anti-family.”
“Other companies saw the goodwill that REI generated,” Nelson said. “Being viewed as family-friendly to their customers is a good thing and why so many decided to close this year.”
But others, like Green, who counsels national retailers on growth strategy, say it’s purely a business decision.
Many retailers have viewed being open on Thanksgiving as a “necessary evil,” he said.
“In other words, they are only open because their competitors are,” he said.
A Morning Consult survey this month of 2,000 U.S. consumers found more than half – 59 percent – said they did not support stores opening on Thanksgiving, while 48 percent said they were more likely to visit a store on Black Friday if it didn’t open early on Thanksgiving.
Some retailers – without the heft of a Wal-Mart, Target, or Best Buy – can’t justify staying open, said Christa Hart, head of the consumer and retail practice at New York-based FTI Consulting.
“Wal-Mart and some other retailers have increased hourly wages paid to associates, which makes it more expensive to open earlier and stay later,” Hart said.
Rob Rosendale, 27, a homeowners insurance adjuster from Newtown, said he ventures out after his Thanksgiving meal for one thing: $5 DVDs from Target.
“It’s a holiday that should be enjoyed,” Rosendale said in the Macy’s men’s department at Oxford Valley Mall last week. “You won’t find me out shopping for good deals. One more day won’t hurt you.”
But C.J. Savage, 35, of West Philadelphia, a disability counselor at Villanova University, said people should have that option.
“Some people want to get their shopping done early to beat the crowds on [Black] Friday,” Savage said as he checked out sneakers for his son at King of Prussia Mall. “Otherwise, you’ll have all this [traffic] backup on Friday with everyone going out at once.”
But for those who work on Thanksgiving, Savage said, “employers should fully compensate them for their time and throw in something extra, like a Thanksgiving meal, to make them feel appreciated.”
Online shopping is expected to play a bigger role, with Americans ordering more on Cyber Monday – the Monday after the Thanksgiving-Black Friday weekend – than they did last year. The NRF forecasts 2016 holiday online sales will grow from 7 to 10 percent up to $117 billion, topping last year’s $105 billion.
“Mobile phones make it easy to comparison-shop, so customers [can check in] real time to get the right prices,” FTI’s Hart said.
Azza Semlali, 23, of South Philadelphia, celebrates the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr (End of Ramadan) that’s akin to Thanksgiving in her native Tunisia.
“Back home, there’s no shopping on that day – only food preparation,” said Semlali, as she and her mother, Hajar Semlali, took a break from shopping at King of Prussia Mall last week. “Every holiday should have its own day. You don’t have to rush [out] to buy clothes just because they’re cheaper” that day.
Kerick, the Bucks County shopper, offered a solution: “If [retailers] all closed on Thanksgiving, then they wouldn’t be competing with each other on who’s getting the earlier start to Black Friday,” she said. “Hopefully, we can get them all to close.
“Let people eat their turkey and be with their family.”