The fall/winter holiday season in the United States has been undergoing a transformation for years, from a celebration of distinct and separate events into a several-month-long cacophony of merciless cheer, exuberant decorations and endless bargain shouting. Even the notion of "Black Friday" is a false one--while retailers do earn approximately one third of their income during the end of year holiday season, the notion that retailers only start to turn a profit the last week of November is an urban legend (perhaps to justify the relentless marketing).
We intrinsically know and readily accept that some people never get to take holidays when the rest of us do--just think first-responders, pilots and flight attendants, the coaches, players, concession stand workers and others who make post-Thanksgiving possible, our armed forces and all those working in charity around the holidays, etc. As my friend Colin and I discussed this column we added up literally millions of people who work during the holidays so that the rest of us can enjoy time off. And we, and the economy, rely on them to do so.
This year in addition to the ads, promotions and marketing around alleged Black Friday bargains (that often are not bargains at all), we heard increasing consternation in the media and online about the continued expansion of Black Friday shopping hours and the dreadful impact that was having on workers, families and American traditions. Despite the "outrage" last year, in 2012 more retailers opened early on Friday and even on Thanksgiving Day itself to meet (they will say in response to) consumer demand that drove some bargain hunters to line up a full week early.
Some companies came under fire for opening on Thanksgiving Day, including Target, whose detractors included some of its own small shareholders. Target defended its decision to open at 9 PM on Thanksgiving Day by explaining that its customers and employees had expressed a preference for opening on Thanksgiving rather than waking up brutally early on Friday. Toys "R" Us, Wal-Mart Stores and Sears opened at 8 PM. Macy's and Kohl's opened at midnight on Black Friday, just as they did in 2011.
So, as Christmas carols and decorations appear earlier and earlier each year, consumers have been empowered to choose between spending time with loved ones or racing out to the store to purchase gifts in an effort to demonstrate their love for those same people. Despite a few threatened employee walk-outs and online petitions stores are obviously finding the income outweighs the negative feelings.
When deciding when to open and what to offer online for the holiday weekend, stores were faced with a rather simple choice--with a projected 147 million shoppers ready and eager to spend their money (in person and online) during the Black Friday weekend, how much weight should they give to the 350,000 signatures on petitions asking them to close for the holidays (and allow their competitors to meet the needs of all those willing spenders)?
It is an over-simplification of the issue to only see this as "greedy" stores putting profits ahead of people. The fact is that far too many consumers--post weekend surveys estimated 247 million shoppers in person and online--are and were willing to shop during the extended hours, camp out, stampede and even trample and steal from each other for retailers to turn their backs on the windfall, or risk it going to competitors, so the trend of opening early becomes a necessary competitive strategy. Companies facing criticism for "taking advantage of employees" can make the strong case that by meeting consumer demand they are actually taking better care of their employees, avoiding layoffs, pay cuts, etc., particularly in a weak economy. In addition, stores were projected to hire approximately 300,000 temporary seasonal workers to meet the increased holiday demand.
Retailers are not the only ones who benefit from maximizing holiday sales revenue. Others who benefit include the workers--both regular and seasonal--who count on the extra pay from working holidays in order to provide for their families. Shareholders who own stock in companies that make a third of their profit in the last sixth of the year benefit from those returns. The sales taxes generated during Black Friday support local communities as well as Federal Government programs. Some advocates promote online shopping as the "best of all worlds" option--with consumers able to price compare and shop from the comfort and convenience of their holiday homes, while in-store employees remain in theirs; but as the percentage of shoppers who hunt their bargains on the Internet increases, the number of employees--both regular and seasonal--who count on the extra money by working holidays will be reduced. And the issue of sales taxes further complicates the equation.
I know this may not be popular, but with far more elements supporting expanding holiday shopping than resisting it, there is reason to believe that we will see a continuing erosion of our holidays.
This piece first appeared in our FREE weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, available in the iTunes App store.