Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A futile gesture of protest

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Christmas Creep is the way it eats into Thanksgiving. It's bad enough that stores put out all their holiday decorations in October and are playing bad Christmas music weeks before Thanksgiving, but now an ever-increasing number of businesses are actually starting their "Black Friday" sales on Thanksgiving Day.

Wal-Mart started it a few years back by moving its Black Friday "doorbusters" up by two hours, from midnight on Friday to 10pm on Thursday, and its opening times have crept ever earlier in the years since. Meanwhile, its competitors, fearful of losing out, have not only followed suit but are now jockeying furiously to be the first to open on what's supposed to be a national holiday. RadioShack is planning to open at 8am, just like any other business day; it was originally planning to stay open all day long, but after a spate of furious criticism, it's now giving its employees a break from noon to 5pm before they have to be back on the job. (Hope they can cook and eat their Thanksgiving dinner in that time.) But even that isn't the prize winner; Sears has announced that its KMart stores will open at 6 am on Thanksgiving Day, literally before dawn in many parts of the country, and will remain open through midnight on Black Friday—42 consecutive hours. Because nothing captures the spirit of Thanksgiving like elbowing your fellow shoppers out of the way to get your hands on cheap tablets and toasters. And one particular mall in upstate New York has announced that not only will it open its doors at 6pm on Thanksgiving, but every store in the mall must also do so or pay a hefty fine.

It's actually gotten to the point that the stores that are remaining closed on Thanksgiving are now trumpeting this decision as a marketing gimmick. Sam's Club, Nordstrom, TJ Maxx, and other retailers that aren't observing "Black Thursday" are loudly proclaiming their commitment to "family," bragging about how they're giving their workers a break by letting them spend Thanksgiving with their families instead of on their feet trying to stem a tide of frenzied bargain hunters. Even the Facebook group "Boycott Shopping on Thanksgiving Day" is declaring the stores on its "nice" list (the ones that won't be open on Thanksgiving) to be "worthy of extra business throughout the year"—as if these stores deserve brownie points just for staying closed on, again, a national holiday.

What's really baffling to me is why so many businesses are pissing off their employees, and at least a small percentage of their customers, by opening on Thanksgiving Day. The explanation that's usually given in news stories is that if one retailer does it, others have no choice but to follow suit; if Wal-Mart is open and Target isn't, then all the folks who want to start their holiday shopping before they've even finished digesting their pumpkin pie will go to Wal-Mart, and Target will lose out on sales. But as this piece in Time magazine points out, being open on Thanksgiving doesn't appear to boost a retailer's overall holiday sales. Rather than taking business away from their competitors, they're just cannibalizing their own Black Friday profits by moving some of them up to Thursday.

Apparently, the fact that Thanksgiving hours don't improve overall sales isn't a strong enough argument to convince companies not to do it. So it looks like the only way this trend will stop is if stores start seeing their Thanksgiving hours actually hurt their overall sales. The "Boycott Shopping on Thanksgiving Day" group claims, "the solution is simple: If we don’t shop on Thanksgiving Day, it won’t be profitable for the retailers and they won’t do it again next year." But frankly, I have my doubts about this. After all, the only people taking part in this protest are the ones who object to the idea of shopping on Thanksgiving, and they presumably wouldn't have been doing it anyway—so simply declaring this stance to be a "boycott" doesn't actually cost the stores anything. To hurt their business at all, we have to refuse to shop there for the rest of the holiday season, as well.

So that's what I'm doing.

For the rest of this holiday season—meaning, until next year—I will not shop at any of the stores on the "naughty" list (the ones that are open on Thanksgiving Day). This means that my local Rite Aid, which I was already planning to boycott until after Thanksgiving because of their premature holiday decorations, is now off-limits for December as well. I also won't be paying any of my occasional visits to Target, Payless, Staples, or Michael's during the next six weeks. (I don't, however, plan on shifting my business to Hobby Lobby, which is on the "nice" list; merely closing on Thanksgiving doesn't make up for refusing to pay for birth control in my book.) And the new pair of sneakers I was planning to buy myself (to replace an aging pair that has lost all the spring from its step) will just have to be put on hold until next year. Even my beloved Dollar Tree, which was so much help with my last Thanksgiving post, is off-limits until next year.

Fortunately, most of the stores I shop at regularly, including Home Depot and Lowe's, PetSmart and Petco, and Aldi and Trader Joe's, will be closed on Thanksgiving, so I won't have to change my shopping habits too much. Barnes & Noble is still fair game for my holiday shopping as well. And I'm not planning to boycott any supermarkets (which, as far as I can remember, have always been open on Thanksgiving morning to accommodate last-minute shoppers) or online-only stores (which are open all the time, and which aren't actually pulling people away from their families).

I realize this gesture is probably futile on my part, since a one-person boycott isn't likely to do much damage (especially to stores I most likely wasn't going to shop at anyway). But if I can draw attention to the issue, and maybe persuade a few other people to follow suit, and they can persuade a few more, we might eventually be able to make a difference.

Alternatively, I could always try to petition my state legislature to pass a blue law like the one they have in Massachusetts, which requires all retail stores (with a few exceptions, like gas stations) to close on Thanksgiving. But I think that's unlikely to get anywhere while we've got a pro-business governor who's eager to become a pro-business presidential candidate.


Emily Guy Birken said...

What has me so frustrated with these sorts of decisions is that they are framed as profit-or-perish motives. "We've got to do this or we'll lose out to our competition." Because whoever dies with the highest profits wins, apparently.

We need to change how we do business. Shareholders and constant profits should not be more important than the employees and customers. As long as you stay in business and maintain a decent profit, why do you need to corner the market in anything? I honestly don't need that. Neither do the shareholders.

Let's all embrace a sense of *enough*.

Amy Livingston said...

I just found the answer to your question in this month's Mother Earth News magazine: "In a conventional business, managers and directors could be sued by shareholders if they make a decision for reasons other than shareholder earnings." That's a pretty strong incentive.

The article goes on to explain how "B Corporations," which undergo a separate certification process, adhere to different rules; they are actually required to consider ethics as well as earnings. Patagonia and Soma, two of the stores on the "nice" list, are B corporations. Another "nice" chain, Trader Joe's, is privately owned.