It’s not particularly surprising or original any more to talk about how terrible Black Friday is; it’s materialistic, dysfunctional, and every year someone dies or is gruesomely injured; you can pretty much count on a video of a horrible stampede somewhere by about 9 a.m. Not even the Wall Street Journal can summon any enthusiasm for it, pointing out that the “discounts” most chain retailers offer aren’t real: Many of them reverse-engineer their Black Friday prices, setting higher original costs so that the “sale” price still nets them the profit margin they wanted.
And yet at many stores, Black Friday begins on Thanksgiving now, meaning that right this minute, while some of us are nodding off into our gravy-stained hoodies, other people are already punching in, or haven’t gotten to spend the day with their families at all. And the National Retail Federation wants us to know that’s awesome.
The NRF is the nation’s largest retail trade group and Black Friday’s biggest booster. In a jubilant blog post (and a flurry of press releases), the Federation writes that Thanksgiving has “turned into another shopping tradition for millions of Americans. And, considering the state of the economy this holiday season, we expect retailers will eagerly welcome bargain hunters flocking to stores and shopping online.” According to the NRF, 33 million people are planning to shop on Thanksgiving — a number based on a telephone poll of 6,200 people earlier in November.
A bunch of big-box and chain stores with New York locations are joining the frenzy: At the Atlantic Terminal Mall in Brooklyn, just across from Barclays Center, Best Buy will open at 6 p.m. today, while Bath & Body Works and Target open at 8. (We were sent a press release from the owners of the Atlantic Terminal Mall, Forest City Ratner Companies, offering interviews with a spokesperson about “how Brooklyn has become a major shopping destination for national retail chains.” Hurray?) In email promotions, Best Buy touts “three waves of door-busters,” offering special deals at 6 p.m. in-store, midnight online, and 10 a.m. on Friday in-store. Toys R Us opens at 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving, while Macy’s opens at 8. But Kmart takes the prize, having opened at a jaw-dropping six o’clock this morning.
Chain restaurants are getting into the act, as well: McDonald’s and Pizza Hut franchises are often open on Thanksgiving (Pizza Hut’s getting some heat right now, after the general manager of a location in Indiana claims he was fired for refusing to open today). Red Lobster is open too, and offering free Maine lobster tails with the purchase of an entrée. (Because nothing says quality like the phrase “discount seafood.”)
Meanwhile, the protesters are gearing up. The biggest event is a planned Walmart workers’ walkout backed by the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) and the AFL-CIO — two large labor unions that for years have argued that low-wage retail workers get the crap end of the stick this time of year and may not have much choice about coming in on Thanksgiving Day. They’re planning walkouts at 1,500 Walmart stores across the nation tomorrow.
“It plays into the larger themes that we’ve been pushing around low-wage workers who don’t have a lot of job security,” AFL-CIO spokeswoman Amaya Smith told Bloomberg recently about the new Thanksgiving hours at many stores. (For the record, Walmart has been open on Thanksgiving Day for 25 years.) “Thanksgiving, Black Friday is one example of one holiday but throughout the year this is an ongoing issue. These workers need to have a voice on the job.”
There’s no Walmart in New York, of course; the closest planned protest is at the Super Center in Secaucus.
A lot of people are grossed out by Black Friday’s creep into what’s usually a holiday to stay home and suffer through time with your family while thinking dark thoughts about the Pilgrims vis-à-vis genocide (or is that just us?). Several chain retailers have realized they might be alienating their customer base and are publicly announcing how they’ll make the day special for their employees who have to come to work; according to the L.A. Times, Walmart will offer a 25 percent discount to employees, while Toys R Us will offer a “relaxed dress code” and Kohl’s stores will get extra funds “to help ensure the day is a fun one for associates.” A spokeswoman for Gap Inc., which also owns Banana Republic and Old Navy, told the paper that many employees enjoy working on holidays.
That’s also the argument from the New York Daily News‘ Michael Marlow: that retail employees would rather come to work than stay home with their families. He writes that being open on Thanksgiving “isn’t an attack on employees. It is, to the contrary, an attempt by their employers to stay relevant, profitable — and in business.” Because the only thing standing between Walmart or Macy’s and absolute financial destruction is Black Friday.New York Post opinion columnist Karol Markowicz agrees, writing that as a small-business owner, “some of my employees ask to work on days that we’re closed like Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s.”
Marlow and Markowicz cheerily make working on holidays into a fun, empowering choice. The reality is that some people may desperately need the overtime they receive for working on Thanksgiving, especially if they’re employed at a place like Walmart, where at least one store held a food drive for employees, or McDonald’s, whose budgeting tips for employees include advice like “break your food into small pieces” and “sell your Christmas presents for cash.”
But with the exception of the tabloids and retail lobbying groups, almost no one is pretending that’s something to celebrate.