News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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November 24, 2011

MARK BENNETT: When it comes to retail, Thursday is the new Friday

The new Thanksgiving dinner tradition?

Turkey, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie served at a family tailgating party in a big-box store parking lot on Black Thursday.

It seems absurd. Then again, Americans’ concept of “absurd” is evolving. Back in the day, after-Thanksgiving sales began after Thanksgiving. We called it Black Friday — the day circled on retailers’ calendars, when they start turning a profit and get their balance sheets “in the black,” while bleary-eyed shoppers flood their store aisles on early morning bargain hunts.

Black Friday is so 20th century.

This year, numerous nationwide retailers are opening their stores tonight — Thanksgiving night. Kmart doors open at 6 p.m. Toys ’R Us turns the key at 9. Walmart starts its Black Friday specials at 10 p.m. (Technically, today, Nov. 24, is still 24 hours long. Yes, Thursday is the new Friday.) Several others, such as Best Buy, Macy’s, Kohl’s and Target will open at midnight. A previous generation might have called such an intrusion on Thanksgiving absurd. Now, the country shrugs. Other social boundaries have dissolved, why not this one?

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln set aside the last Thursday of November as a national day of thanksgiving.

In 2011, we’ve revised Lincoln’s idea to 18 hours. After that, Thanksgiving becomes Black Thursday. Retail clerks, shelf stockers, cashiers and managers leave the family gatherings and head to work. Many may miss some or all of the Thanksgiving festivities, trying to catch some sleep before pulling an overnight shift.

Why is this happening? American consumers want it, according to the retail industry. The stores are merely responding to demand. In a tough, post-recession economy, people are willing to forego a full day of celebrating blessings to spend Thanksgiving night jockeying for position to buy a Christmas gift at a 40-percent price markdown. The early bird gets the worm (or iPhone), both for shoppers and the stores. The result — there’s less time to count blessings, but more time to count savings and revenue.

And that’s really all it amounts to — an extension of time, specifically the Christmas shopping season. The economy won’t benefit from those lost hours of Thanksgiving. The amount of holiday spending most Americans can afford will not increase because Black Friday has now taken a bite out of Thanksgiving. A study by BDO, a tax consulting firm, and cited in Time magazine, predicted the average middle-class consumer will spend $704.18 this season, compared with $718.98 last year and $750 before the Great Recession hit. After-Thanksgiving sales will rise a slight 1.6 percent, according to the study.

In a nutshell, people will simply stretch out their holiday shopping, spending the same amount of money over a longer period of time.

The pumpkin pie won’t be any larger; we’ll just slice and serve it differently.

Americans lined up outside stores on Thanksgiving isn’t the end of Western civilization. The employees who must cater to those shoppers join other U.S. workers who regularly pull shifts on this holiday, including doctors, nurses, medical techs, emergency responders, police officers, firefighters, electric company linemen and power plant operators, convenience store cashiers and journalists. But those latter occupations involve health, safety, energy, fuel and information services. By contrast, it’s the Black Thursday phenomenon that has unnecessarily forced the dads, moms, aunts, uncles, sons and daughters who perform retail jobs to cut short their Thanksgiving.

Ideally, people will spend today with loved ones and friends, eating and talking, watching football on TV, and popping “Christmas Vacation” or “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” into the DVD player at the end of the evening, or they’ll volunteer at a food kitchen. Then, if they’ve got the stamina and patience, they can venture out before dawn on Black Friday and shop relentlessly.

For those who decide to hit the stores tonight, be sure to say “thank you” to the store employees you encounter as you shop. Even if they tell you, “We’re sold out of that item.” Even if their smile is forced or nonexistent. Even if they don’t thank you first. Just remember: This is still Thanksgiving, and they’re sharing theirs with you.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

 

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