On Oct. 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln officially set aside the last Thursday of November "as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise."
It has since been a quintessentially American day, with no affiliations to any particular religion. It brings to mind peace and sharing between Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Native Americans, football games, pumpkin pie, and, of course, turkey.
All that, for years anyway, without the holiday commercialism that so upset Charlie Brown at Christmastime, when he famously asked Linus in exasperation: “Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”
Black Friday — so called because of the potential of the day’s sales to push a retailer out of the red and into the black — started around 1960 as a way to kick off holiday sales with special deals on a day that many had off from work.
In recent years, as e-commerce stole some of Black Friday’s thunder, some retailers began the radical move of opening on Thanksgiving.
These days it's no longer a radical idea, but remains controversial, prompting many to ask, essentially: “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Thanksgiving is all about?”
Black Friday isn't Friday anymore
It’s interesting to see how many retailers keep the “Black Friday” label even when they’re open on Thanksgiving. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has gone so far as to call its five-day holiday sales event, which begins Thanksgiving Day, “New Black Friday.”
First it was Thursday evening, now even Thursday morning. Macy’s — the retailer that hosts New York City’s iconic Thanksgiving Day parade — is, some would say, raining on that parade with its 6 p.m. opening later that day.
Some experts say that this tactic confuses consumers, and may set them up to expect discounts well beyond Black Friday.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that many retailers' prices are not lower on Black Friday, or even Cyber Monday. Indeed, that’s retailers’ doing, say retail experts Rich Kizer and Georganne Bender.
“Black Friday isn’t as important as it used to be because retailers made it that way. Specials now start on the Monday prior to Thanksgiving and run through Cyber Monday," Kizer and Bender told Forbes. "That being said, commercials and media campaigns are already promoting strong deals and special incentives to lure customers into their stores today. It’s no wonder the customer is confused.”
The National Retail Federation is agnostic about whether retailers should open on Thanksgiving Day.
"Opening on Thanksgiving Day doesn’t work for every company," the retail group has said. But it also cites statistics about the increasing number of shoppers that do shop on the holiday. While retailers that open on Thanksgiving invite shoppers, (many, especially younger ones, who definitely show up to shop), they also invite criticism.
In mid-November RadioShack scaled back its Thanksgiving Day hours almost immediately after announcing its extensive shopping plans — to open 8 a.m. to midnight Thursday — after workers complained, and some even quit. The struggling electronics retailer will now take a break from noon to 5 p.m. to allow time for workers to celebrate the holiday.
Then, there are the headlines.
And while president and CEO of Wal-Mart U.S. Greg Foran defended the practice as “absolutely appropriate,” and one Buffalo, NY-area mall said it would mete out stiff fines to retailers daring to close on Thanksgiving, many retailers are scoring points with consumers by declaring proudly that they'll be shut that day.
Indeed, being closed on Thanksgiving has morphed into a feature, and a way to slice through that confusion that Kizer and Bender talk about.
Costco frames its policy as one stemming from a desire to protect the holiday and workers at a time when retail employees are pretty maxed out. That may have special resonance at a time when working conditions for retail employees, even in the U.S., are getting attention.
“It’s an important holiday in the U.S., and our employees work hard during the holiday season, and we believe they deserve the opportunity to spend Thanksgiving Day with their family and friends,” Costco Wholesale EVP and CFO Richard A. Galanti told the New York Times. “We’ve never opened on Thanksgiving, and when the trend to do so occurred in the last couple or three years, we chose not to because we thought it was the right thing to do for our employees.”
What’s the point?
It would likely break Charlie Brown’s heart that Thanksgiving Day is now also being called “Black Thursday.”
But it may not be so sweet for the retailers, either. While retailers eager for sales may want to lure in shoppers with special hours and discounts, they may be spreading those sales thinly over a longer period of time, and not actually adding to sales in the way they may hope, studies show. (That, at least, cuts down on the kind of frenzy that has in a few instances led to deadly stampedes.)
Cyber Monday helps stretch time and expectations, too. And while many surveys tout numbers that some 25% of consumers shop on Thanksgiving Day, many if not most of those will be doing so online, as Brad Tuttle points out in Time.
A University of Connecticut survey last year found that 90% of Americans don't plan on going to any stores that day, that 46% of Americans believe retailers should wait till Friday to open, and that another 34% view retailers negatively when they open Thursday.
Last year, retail analytics firm ShopperTrak found a decline in Black Friday retail sales for the second straight year, though it remained the biggest shopping day of the year.
"Retailers were pretty successful in drawing the consumers into the stores on Thursday," ShopperTrak founder Bill Martin said. But "Thursday's sales came at the expense of Black Friday's numbers. We're just taking Black Friday sales and spreading them across a larger number of days."