Don't be surprised if Thanksgiving becomes just another super-shopping day — or just another workday if you're a retail employee.
Once retailers discovered that Americans were willing to get up very early the day after Thanksgiving (Black Friday) and camp out in a parking lot in order to get a crack at some good deals, it was just a question of which stores could open earliest and get a bigger share of the holiday shopping. If folks are willing to line up at 6 a.m., why not get the jump on the other stores and open at 5 a.m.? Why not 4 a.m.? Why not 10 p.m. Thursday night? But that was last year.This year, retailers such as Walmart, Toys R Us, and Kmart opened their doors at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving; Target opened at 9 p.m. If it turns out sales were good, these stores will likely open even earlier next year and even more stores will take the plunge. (Walmart tweeted that it processed almost 10 million transactions between 8 p.m and midnight.)
Who actually benefits from this craziness?
Retailers get a temporary sales lift from offering deep discounts. But opening stores on a holiday means they have to pay employees time and a half. And it's unlikely that opening stores earlier makes people spend more for holiday shopping; they just spend more that day and less on other days.
What about customers? Ten dollars off on Thursday is pretty much the same as $10 off on Friday. Anyway, you can get a lot of the same deals online. And really, how good a bargain is Gray Thursday at the cost of ever less time with your family when family time is already being whittled away in so many other ways?
One group is definitely worse off: retail employees. Customers can pass on Gray Thursday, but employees are stuck. They often have to show up several hours before opening. And they don't like it! Casey St. Clair, a Target employee, was so upset that she set up a petition on change.org to "save Thanksgiving" and go back to Friday morning opening. By midday today more than 370,000 people had signed it.
Gray Thursday is yet another demonstration that retailers see employees only as a cost to be minimized and as parts that can easily be replaced. From the company's standpoint, if Casey St. Clair doesn't want to work on Thanksgiving, there are plenty of others who will, especially when unemployment is still so high.
This view of employees shows up in many other ways, from low wages to poor working conditions. In 2011, an average full-time retail salesperson made $21,008 a year — below the poverty threshold for a family of four. Cashiers made even less. And in retail, so-called "full-time employees" are not actually guaranteed 40 hours a week of work (and pay) because 94% of retailers count anyone who works more than 32 hours as full-time. So their income can vary significantly from week to week. Overall, retail wages are so low that millions of employees can't survive without public assistance.
That's not all. Retail employees' schedules change all the time, often on short notice. So it's close to impossible for them to have a normal life or hold on to the second job they often need because the "main" one pays so little. Retail employees are often not given the time, tools, and training to do a good job. I've talked to employees who come to work early just to grab the equipment they need to get their work done before co-workers show up, because there isn't enough to go around.
And when retailers make decisions such as opening stores on Thanksgiving, without even a clear benefit to the companies or their customers, retail employees are once again reminded of how little their companies care about their lives and well being. What difference does it make if a household with two working parents or a single-parent household hardly ever has time for a big family gathering? What difference does it make if a joyful family tradition has to be cut down to size? That's not a business matter. Is it any wonder that Walmart associates and community supporters were mad enough to protest about bad jobs in front of Walmart stores on Black Friday? (OUR Walmart, an organization of current and former Walmart employess, reports that there were protests at 1,000 stores. Walmart downplays the protests and says there were only a few dozen.)
What retailers don't realize is that their "lean and mean" treatment of employees isn't even helping their bottom lines. If you study the longer-term consequences of treating employees this way as I have, you find that when retailers do not invest in their people, their operations suffer and their stores are full of problems such as products in the wrong place or with the wrong price, obsolete products on the shelves, and long checkout lines. These problems reduce sales and profits. Many retail chains base their labor budgets on sales; so when sales decline, so do labor budgets. Then retailers invest even less in their people and the vicious cycle continues.
Everyone suffers. Companies leave a lot of money on the table. Customers get bad service and higher prices dues to inefficiencies. The employees suffer most. But retail employees are a huge segment of our society, so our society suffers as well. A study conducted in the early 2000s found that Walmart employees in California were receiving $86 million in public assistance a year. If you're a taxpayer, that's your problem even if you never set foot in a Walmart.
One thing to be thankful for is that it doesn't have to be this way. Companies such as Costco, QuikTrip, Mercadona, and Trader Joe's show us that even low-cost retailers can provide their employees with good jobs and their shareholders with good returns.
If you haven't done your holiday shopping yet, let me offer you one thought: If you're wondering which of two stores to walk into, take the one that treats its employees better. It's better for all of us.