THE BLOG
11/21/2012 11:08 pm ET | Updated Jan 21, 2013

Does the U.S. Need to Regulate Black Friday?

It's almost upon us again -- that annual orgy of consumerism called Black Friday. The drive-through coffee kiosks that grow thick on the roadsides around the Puget Sound have signs in their windows: "Open 24 Hours on Black Friday." In the middle of the night, my phone beeps continually as advertising e-mails stream into my inbox, keeping me up-to-date on all the sales planned by all the stores in whose loyalty programs I participate. TV advertising, which was so recently dominated by political rhetoric, is now full of sales pitches.

The day after we give thanks for all we have, we run out and get as much more as we can while it's all on sale.

But not everybody's into the holiday spirit. This year Walmart employees are planning to walk out in protest of Black Friday. Other protestors have gone social, objecting to the gradual expansion of holiday shopping past the midnight barrier and into Thanksgiving itself. All of which begs the question -- should Black Friday be regulated?

From an economic standpoint, the simple answer is "no." The American economy is still essentially capitalistic; businesses need to have the liberty to compete for customers, and as long as shoppers are willing to forgo pumpkin pie to get a whack at their Christmas lists a little earlier, it stands to reason that retailers will -- and should be able to -- expand Christmas shopping hours.

But what about the workers who are expected to be there in the stores to help those customers when the rest of the population is enjoying a holiday? What about the cost to those workers' families when a parent is always gone during holidays? What about the social effect of those chronic absences? Holidays are, after all, cultural unifiers; our collective celebrations are part of what define us as a society. The more children who grow up missing those celebrations, the less unified we are.

Perhaps the fact that many retailers black out vacation time during Black Friday is a question worth scrutinizing from a regulatory standpoint. Perhaps there would be sense in a rule forbidding employers from making an employee work on both Thanksgiving and the religious holiday (Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, or whatever) his or her family celebrates at the end of the year.

There could actually be advantages to regulating work patterns during Black Friday. First, if fewer people are working, more people will be shopping. Second, the planning required to manage an under-staffed Black Friday retail environment would naturally encourage retailers to incorporate technologies that automate the retail experience. That would encourage capital investment and the development of those technologies. Third, work regulations would encourage more online competition, potentially reducing the number of shoppers in the stores -- and all the conflicts that go along with overpopulated aisles.

Love it or hate it, Black Friday is here. It isn't going to shrink; it's only going to get bigger. Any question about how to manage that natural and inherent expansion has to focus on making the experience better for everybody.