Early Black Friday Openings: What Does the Trend Mean for Workers?

black-fridayA new Thanksgiving tradition has taken a prominent place alongside turkey carving, “food coma” naps and football-watching. After dinner, many now rush out to hunt for “door-buster” deals, often before the table has even been cleared.

The day after Thanksgiving has long been a kickoff for the holiday shopping season. Yet for more and more Americans, that official first day has been moved up to Thanksgiving evening, prompting some to re-name it “Gray Thursday.”

For the first time, Best Buy, Kohl’s, Macy’s, J.C. Penney, Sports Authority and Staples will join other major retailers in opening on Thanksgiving evening. Last year’s group participating in this ominous practice included Kmart, Old Navy, Sears, Target, Toys R Us and Walmart – all of which will repeat the earlier opening this year as well.

Those major retailers are trying to get ahead of the competition and capture shoppers before they’re burnt out by the Black Friday shopping rush. Yet critics say it’s turning a wholesome family holiday into a frenzy of consumerism, and depriving retrial workers of a day off.

Jerenda Huang of Redmond noted “It was fun to get up and go shopping at 5 a.m. on Friday, but to ruin my Thanksgiving — I don’t think so.” She has already finished her holiday shopping. “Thanksgiving should be a peaceful day, not a time to fight crowds and clamor for deals.”

Yet it is the welfare of workers more than shoppers that many are concerned about. A Sports Authority employee in Seattle said he has to skip Thanksgiving dinner with his family because his team must report for work at 5 p.m. Thursday. This shift comes with no additional holiday pay or perks. “My family doesn’t plan to eat dinner until 3 or 4 in the afternoon, so I won’t be spending Thanksgiving with them,” said the twenty-three year old worker, who asked to remain anonymous at the recommendation of employment attorneys who want to protect him for employer retaliation. “The whole thing seems over the top. I don’t see why you can’t just open at 6 a.m. on Black Friday and close at 10 p.m.”

Unfortunately, many Americans who do not have to work these holiday shifts are willing to shug off the impact on workers.  Last week the National Retail Federation polled consumers on their Thanksgiving plans, and nearly 40% between the ages of 25 to 34 said they’ll shop on Thursday. Up to 33 million shoppers are expected to hit the stores and malls on Thanksgiving, compared with 97 million on Black Friday.

“What started as a test run for large retailers has actually turned into a legitimate part of the holiday shopping weekend,” said federation spokeswoman Kathy Grannis. “Our research shows there is an audience for it.” Political and economic instability in recent months have caused American to curb spending, so getting them to spend early is now the name of the game, Grannis said.

“For retailers, knowing that people are on tight budgets, this is a great way to get in front of their customers and offer them something attractive,” she said. “It will be a very highly promotional environment on Thanksgiving.”

Target employee Aaron Harvey said he’ll work from 8 p.m. Thursday to 4 a.m. Friday at the Factoria store in Bellevue.

But, some of the most well-known Seattle retailers aren’t going along with the trend. Some of the most notable holdouts are Seattle-based Nordstrom and Costco Wholesale. Paul Latham, vice president of marketing at Costco, said the decision to remain closed on Thanksgiving was “not very complicated.” As he explained, “we appreciate how hard our employees work, especially during the holiday season. Because Thanksgiving is a traditional holiday, we simply feel that our employees deserve the opportunity to share it with their family and friends.”  And of course the L&I Lawyers of Emery Reddy plan to give their employees a full holiday for both Thanksgiving and Black Friday.

Meanwhile, Nordstrom reports that its fourth-quarter sales comprise 30% of annual business most years. But the company can pass on Thanksgiving openings simply because its customers aren’t looking for deep discounts. “Macy’s is a promotional department store where people shop for sales. And Nordstrom is not shopped that way,” said retail consultant Jeff Green. “It’s shopped for quality and service, and if you want that, you’ll wait for it.”

Nordstrom posted a message on its Facebook page Wednesday saying its stores will close on Thanksgiving and reopen Friday to “ring in the new season.” The Facebook post garnered more than 21,000 “likes” in less than 24 hours.

Bill Martin, founder and executive vice president of research firm ShopperTrak, estimates that sales on Thanksgiving will be a “little more” than last year’s $800 million. But that pales in comparison to the $2.8 billion a typical Thursday in November generates, or the nearly $11 billion done on Black Friday, he said.

Seattle-based cookware chain Sur La Table said it will close on Thanksgiving so that its employees and customers can “stuff themselves silly and fall into a tryptophan snooze.”

Kent-based REI also hopes customers will appreciate its decision to stick to tradition and close on Thanksgiving.

“We found our customers just aren’t expecting us to be open,” said REI spokeswoman Libby Catalinich. “Folks who shop at REI tend to be outdoors or outside hiking, working off their holiday dinner.”

And for anyone who wants to shop on Thanksgiving, she added, “Our website is open.”

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Emery Reddy