Friday, November 28, 2014

Black Thursday: Does It Matter?

The arms race among chain stores for Day-after-Thanksgiving shoppers breached midnight a couple years ago, and this year stores were advertising "doorbusters" as early as 5 p.m. Thanksgiving Day. The muscling in by holiday shopping onto what had been a sacred day for American civil religion has occasioned some outrage among commentators, which has in turn led to counter-outrage and charges of hypocrisy. My friend and fellow blogger John Heaton noted on Facebook:
For everyone concerned about retail workers having to work tomorrow, please don't forget to boycott the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade; NFL football; NHL ice hockey; NCAA football and basketballl; and literally anything else that airs on any TV or radio station. Unless you think it's OK for cameramen, engineers, stadium beer vendors, balloon wranglers, newscasters, and athletes to have to spend their holiday away from their families.
My own initial instinct is to be, if not outraged, at least profoundly troubled by this intrusion. But is there a rational basis for this feeling, or am I just reacting to a change in cultural tradition?

Critics often note that the chain stores are yanking underpaid workers (see Florida article, cited below) away from their families in order to deal with hordes of bargain-hungry shoppers. But many people were already working on Thanksgiving. Some are essential workers, like police, firefighters, security guards and medical personnel. Radio and television stations operate with at least skeleton staff; this may be because they were traditionally part of the civil defense system, and since 1978 stations have to keep operating in order to defend their space on the broadcast spectrum. So, if you're listening to the radio or watching TV on Thanksgiving, you're using the services of at least one person who's at work instead of being at home with family.

There are others working, too. When my wife was growing up, her family tradition was to go bowling after Thanksgiving dinner. Someone had to be working at the bowling alley, right? More recently, I had a modest personal Thanksgiving tradition. After our family had a sumptuous dinner at my sister's house in Illinois, I would drive my brother home and then stop at a convenience store (at Rte. 53 and 75th Street, to be precise) for an energizing coffee or pop. As a college teacher, I don't hold classes on Thanksgiving Day, but I almost always do some grading (as indeed I did this year), and many years ago worked holiday shifts at my college radio station so we could comply with FCC regulations and keep our frequency. So for years upon years I have been no stranger either to working or to using services on Thanksgiving.

So why then am I bothered by the recent move of major retailers into the holiday evening? I can think of three major reasons... love 'em or gently correct 'em.

It's the scale. One could argue, as John does above, that if anyone is working on Thanksgiving Day, no one can justifiably complain about working. I'd say, though, there is a difference between a bowling alley or convenience store that just happens to be open, and a large retail franchise for which this is a major, heavily-advertised event. Maybe I'm buying too credulously into the myth of small business benignity. But I think that a small operation can identify and financially reward staff who are willing to work the holiday without requiring all hands to be on deck; and that the local owner might well be responsive if he or she found the staff generally objected to working then.

On a holiday honoring our better feelings, it appeals to our baser motives. Materialism has its place, as economists since Mandeville have noted. But that place should be bounded, because we are more than mere consumers of stuff. Our brains have reward centers, at which holiday marketing takes dead-eye aim (Glinton), but we need to take time to connect with family and friends, to express gratitude, and to digest food. Our culture used to support our need for this time: Recall that President Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1939 proclamation moving Thanksgiving from the last Thursday of November to the fourth Thursday was occasioned by retailers' concerns about delaying the start of Christmas shopping (Stein and Delaney). Now materialism, having walked all over the religious-spiritual side of  Christmas for years, tosses constraint aside and brazenly marches into Thanksgiving. You saw your family and ate your turkey, right? Good. Now get out here and buy something!

It reminds us of the spiritual poverty of our public spaces. The first Thanksgiving dinner, at least in legend, was shared by the entire population of the  Plymouth colony along with their Powhatan neighbors. These days we celebrate Thanksgiving, not as a whole community, but in pods of family and friends. Retail Doorbusters do get us out in public--however, instead of being a community of citizens we're individual consumers competing with other consumers out to acquire the same low-priced stuff. The physical locations where these encounters occur are no more uplifting, as underscored by this year's Strong Towns survey of parking lots (Marohn).

So I think we're right to feel uneasy at this latest development of modern life, at whatever level we feel the unease, and however inconsistent it might be with our behavior. Starting Black Friday on Thursday late afternoon  harms rather than enhances our common life. Formulating a response is tricky, though. It doesn't seem to me to be properly the province of public policy (i.e. regulation). The rules of competition being what they are, it's a lot to expect any of the major retailers unilaterally to disarm. (Note the comments of retail analyst Howard Davidowitz in the NPR story.) However, if any of them does, we should reward them. Better yet, let's eschew the chains altogether and patronize local businesses that keep their revenues in our towns.


Richard Florida, "This Holiday Season, Let's Turn Retail Jobs Into Middle-Class Ones," CityLab, 28 November 2014,

Sunari Glinton, "Holiday Shopping Ads Are Geared Toward Brain's Reward Center," National Public Radio, 26 November 2014,

Charles Marohn, "#blackfridayparking," Strong Towns, 28 November 2014,

Sam Stein and Arthur Delaney, "When FDR Tried To Mess With Thanksgiving, It Backfired Big Time," Huffington Post, 25 November 2014,


"Ending the War on Christmas," 21 December 2013,

"Local Businesses," 4 June 2013,

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