Let’s see here. Consumer confidence is at a five-year high. The National Retail Federation expects this year’s holiday sales to rise 4.1 percent, lower than in 2011 but still above the 10-year average. And Thanksgiving falls earlier this year—November 22—than it has since the start of the financial crisis, making more time between Turkey Day and Christmas Day than usual.
But despite those encouraging trends or extra shopping days, retail chains’ leaders have decided to start their Black Friday sales even earlier. Target will open its doors at 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving. Wal-Mart will begin its Black Friday sales at 8 p.m. (It has long been open on Thanksgiving Day). Toys R Us and Sears have also said they would begin the holiday crush early this year.
Some customers are shrugging off the holiday creep, likely inured to what seems to be Christmas’s annual march backwards on the calendar. After all, online retail has long been an option for what some call ”post-pie” shopping. This year, Internet sites like eBay, Rue La La and Ideeli are planning special sales for Thursday afternoon for shoppers stretched out on the couch with their iPads in a tryptophan stupor.
But other customers and employees aren’t happy about the chains’ move. Several Facebook pages are urging customers to boycott stores open on Thanksgiving. An employee who says she has worked at Target started a Change.org petition that has drawn 200,000 signatures. And reports say that a group of Wal-Mart employees are planning walk-outs on Black Friday.
(Regarding a potential walkout, Wal-Mart spokesperson Steven Restivo responded in an email that “I can’t speak to what may or may not happen at an individual store, but we’re prepared to have a great event and we’ll be open and ready to take care of our customers.” Target has posted their own statement online, and told CNN the company’s opening time was carefully evaluated and that hourly employees who work on Thanksgiving will get time and a half their hourly pay rate, as well as other pay premiums.)
I doubt such frustrations will do much to dent stores’ holiday sales. There are few things American shoppers love more this time of year than a deal, and as much as it may rub many people the wrong way to have one of our least commercial holidays disrupted, it wouldn’t surprise me if next year the same stores decide to start even earlier. (Bring your turkey! Shop while you eat!) The numbers, after all, support the move: According to a blog post by NPD Group industry analyst Marshal Cohen, retailers that extended their hours last year witnessed gains of up to 22 percent in sales for the Black Friday weekend.
Still, I can’t help but wonder what some of these big-box chains might stand to gain, too, if they broke from the pack. Imagine, for a moment, that the CEO of one of these discounters made a point to publicly declare that he or she would not follow competitors’ march toward Thanksgiving dinner tables. The company might still do its early morning door-busters, but proudly publicize that it would sacrifice a few hours of sales to protect the sanctity of its employees’ and customers’ family time on Thanksgiving.
In doing so, this CEO would set the company apart, potentially drawing more customers from the ranks of shoppers annoyed by the increasing holiday creep. Plenty of loyalty could be won in the process. And the decision would send the signal to the company’s other leaders that going against the grain can be okay.
Of course, there is one retailer who has done just that for years. Nordstrom proudly trumpets its longstanding tradition of not putting up Christmas decorations or starting holiday sales until the day after Thanksgiving. A sign in its store windows reads: “We just like the idea of celebrating one holiday at a time.”
Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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