About that Thursday Thing

I've written quite a few satirical articles on Black Friday - it's become something of a Mainlining Christmas tradition. I'm sure I'll write a few more words on that subject this year, but not right now. I want to approach the expanding Black Friday date from a different perspective.

I want to be serious for a minute.

I can't imagine anyone out there isn't familiar with this, but just in case, here's the background: Black Friday has been shifting away from a one-day affair. A large number of retailers, led by Walmart and Target, now open on Thanksgiving. This is a relatively new phenomenon: when we started the blog, we'd never heard of stores opening on Thanksgiving or midnight on Friday. It was on year two that we first went out on Thanksgiving night, resulting in what I still consider one of the best posts we've ever put on this blog. But even then, there were very few stores open earlier than midnight. That's changed in the last three years, and - understandably - a lot of people are angry.

The group Boycott Black Friday has amassed lists of retailers open and closed on Thanksgiving. I'm not going to re-post the whole thing - you can find their complete updated lists on their Facebook page, if you're interested - but here are the first five on each side:

Open ThursdayWalmart
Toys ''R'' Us
Best Buy

Closed Thursday
DSW Designer Shoe Warehouse
Pier 1 Imports

I've also been seeing meme-style photos celebrating stores and their executives for drawing a line in the sand and refusing to make their employees come in on Thanksgiving. For a lot of people, this is becoming a moral issue, and I respect that. Only I think they're going about this in the wrong way.

Here's the thing: the "good" stores aren't really all that good, and the "bad" ones aren't any worse than their competitors. That DSW quote I just linked to - it's bullshit. DSW isn't closing on Thanksgiving because they care about their employees: they're closing because they're a shoe store. The poetic line-in-the-sand stuff is just an attempt to spin a business decision into a ethical stand.

People aren't shopping for shoes at 11PM on Thursday night: they're trying to get a cheap television. Look at the short lists from Boycott Black Friday again: all of those that are open sell electronics, and all of those that remain closed don't (at least not as a major part of their business). Going to the longer lists on their site, the only store boycotting Black Friday's Eve (as we call it here) that actually has much to lose is Gamestop (credit where it's due - if they don't reverse that decision, it represents a pretty impressive stand).

But overall, this isn't about ethics: it's about economics. The choice to open or close on Thanksgiving is as simple as estimating the cost of doing so (including negative publicity) compared with the expected sales.

And here's the punchline: I suspect most of the executives who are opening their stores would love to stay closed. Black Friday sales have been decreasing, even as hours of operation have been increasing. Every minute open represents an investment, which means the ROI for the entire event has nowhere to go but down. On top of that, executives know that most Thursday night sales ultimately come out of Friday: they're redistributing when the money comes in, not increasing it.

So why continue to open on Thanksgiving? It's simple: because their competitors are open. If Target stayed closed, Walmart would pick up the extra traffic. In effect, a portion of Target's Black Friday sales would be redistributed to Walmart on Thursday, along with some of Walmart's Black Friday sales. Walmart would win, and Target would lose a zero-sum game.

Neither side can withdraw, because doing so would open an opportunity for the other to steal market share. With dozens of retailers competing against each other, closing your doors is the same as handing your opponents money. In other words, if everyone remained closed, everyone would benefit. But in that situation, whoever broke the truce and opened early would reap massive rewards, which would force the others to open, as well. Hell, that's how we got here in the first place.

Of course, we could outlaw the practice. If we prevented stores from opening before 5 or 6 AM on Friday, we'd force a ceasefire without damaging the overall economy (like I said, these sales are mostly borrowed from Friday, anyway).

However, there are a few problems. First of all, there's Amazon. Online retailers can remain open 24 hours a day, and they're competing with brick-and-mortar stores, as well. Limiting Walmart is akin to boosting Amazon, whose warehouses are almost certainly staffed around the clock on Thanksgiving.

Even more problematic are the dangers of Black Friday morning openings. Before Walmart began operating on Thursday, there were a number of injuries and deaths resulting from crowds crashing in when the doors opened. Forcing the retail giant back into this model would almost certainly mean more of the same.

Maybe the better option is to accept the change and find other ways of compensating the employees. I assume most people staffed for Thanksgiving are at least paid time and a half, but that's still insulting. I'd be in favor of mandating a minimum wage of $30/hour for retail jobs between the start of the day on Thanksgiving and 6 AM on Black Friday: that should at least cushion the blow to families who are robbed of a Thanksgiving meal and at the same time incentivize a number of businesses to double-check whether or not opening is really worth it. Hell, if we did this at the national level, we could even extend the rule to warehouses supporting digital retailers.

But boycotting stores that open early seems counterproductive to me, and supporting stores for staying closed seems downright silly. Keep in mind I'm talking about boycotting the stores in general: I'm certainly not saying you shouldn't stay in on Thursday. Hell, everyone who doesn't run a holiday-themed blog should skip the Thursday night sales. Those things are brutal, and whatever you save on a big-screen TV won't compensate you for the hours you stand in line to get it.

Also, please don't read this as blanket claim that no one should boycott Walmart. There are plenty of reasons not to shop there. I just think there are better ones than their Thanksgiving hours.