Hey, Thanksgiving Shoppers: Macy’s Isn’t the Only One to Blame for Ruining the Holiday

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Macy’s has been getting a lot of grief for announcing that the store will open its doors to shoppers on Thanksgiving for the first time ever. But because its retail competitors are doing the same — and because our shop-anytime-anywhere culture demands it — the department store probably has no choice but to play along.

This past week, soon after the store announced it would open its doors at 8 p.m. on the night of Thanksgiving, the masses began denouncing the move as greedy, misguided and unfair to the employees being forced to work on a day traditionally reserved for family.

“Please write an obituary because I think this death needs to be acknowledged,” one observer told Chicago’s Daily Herald upon hearing of Macy’s decision, giving voice to a sentiment felt by many. “It is the death of Thanksgiving.”

Despite the outrage, neither Macy’s move nor the “death” of Thanksgiving should come as much of a surprise. In early October, word leaked that Macy’s had circulated a poll among employees to see if they would be willing to work starting at 7:30 p.m. on Thanksgiving, while also implicitly stating that they might be called in to work whether they like it or not.

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What’s more, while opening its doors on Thanksgiving may be unprecedented for Macy’s — which has previously opened a few hours later at midnight — several retailers are already well acquainted with the “tradition” of launching Black Friday sales on Thursday evening. Last year, Walmart, Target and Toys “R” Us were among the stores posting Black Friday deals on Thursday night, during what might otherwise be considered a quiet time for family conversation over pumpkin pie.

Other retailers are already joining Macy’s in announcing Thanksgiving openings. South Florida’s entire Sawgrass Mills outlet mall will do so, and stay open for 26 straight hours, according to the Sun Sentinel. And within days of Macy’s announcement, J.C. Penney executives said they, too, would follow suit.

The case of J.C. Penney presents the clearest explanation for why retailers — and department stores in particular — are running the risk of angering workers and alienating some customers by opening on Thanksgiving night. There are many reasons why J.C. Penney is struggling, with rumors of bankruptcy swirling and a stock price at 30-year lows. One is that shoppers didn’t respond well to the retailer’s attempt to stop playing the usual nonstop-promotion/door-buster/wacky-hour games practiced by the competition.

A year ago, then CEO Ron Johnson decided that J.C. Penney would largely sidestep the madness, and that Thanksgiving should be reserved for families. Stores wouldn’t open at 4 a.m. on Black Friday, but at the more reasonable hour (relatively speaking) of 6 a.m. While prices would be good, there would be no coupons or absurd, over-the-top discounts.

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For the most part, consumers reacted to these “fair and square” offers and policies by heading directly to competitors. After last year’s experience, and with its back against the wall, J.C. Penney now has no choice but to resort to the extended holiday hours and “fake prices” it tried to move away from.

Like many retailers, J.C. Penney isn’t portraying its decision to open on Thanksgiving night as one of desperation, nor as a greedy play to encourage even more consumerism at the cost of ruining American holiday tradition. Instead, company spokespeople say that Thanksgiving hours and promotions exist simply to make customers happy.

“Last year, we opened much later than the competition and our stores saw a lot of frustrated customers tap our doors wanting to shop,” J.C. Penney spokeswoman Daphne Avila said to the Dallas Morning News. “This year, we decided we weren’t going to let those opportunities pass us by.”

In a press release, Macy’s also pointed the finger at shoppers demanding Thanksgiving hours as an explanation for this year’s change. “In response to interest from customers who prefer to start their shopping early,” the company stated, “most Macy’s stores will open at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving evening, consistent with many other retailers.”

It’s convenient for retailers to subtly, delicately pass the blame for the “death of Thanksgiving” onto shoppers. Such an explanation might seem underhanded if it weren’t largely true. The truth is that stores wouldn’t be open if it wasn’t in their best business interest, just as stores wouldn’t launch holiday-season deals in September if shoppers didn’t have an appetite for it. Stores don’t need all consumers, or even a majority, to like the idea of shopping on Thanksgiving as a justification to open early. All they need is a sizable number of fanatical shoppers, and clearly, that’s covered.

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The results of a new American Express survey indicate that more consumers want to do their holiday shopping earlier — 27% said they’ll be done by Dec. 1, compared with 24% last year. Consumers are also becoming more comfortable with the idea of shopping on Thanksgiving, if not in person, than certainly online; e-mail inboxes are sure to be flooded with special offers on the morning of Turkey Day because retailers know nearly everyone has the day off. “Thanksgiving has become a marquee day for online shopping,” Keith Mercier, associate partner with IBM’s Retail Center of Competence, told MarketWatch, citing data indicating that Thanksgiving e-sales have grown 132% over the past five years.

Because of all this, “it’s probably smart for Macy’s to be open” on the night of Turkey Day, Britt Beemer, founder and chairman of America’s Research Group, said to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Many shoppers understand that stores like Macy’s and J.C. Penney are only doing what makes sense for them, given the realities of today’s retail world. If anything, some don’t think Thanksgiving is being ruined by retailers opening their doors, but by the shoppers who play along and show up. As one person commenting on the Sun-Times story put it:

If no one wanted to SHOP on Thanksgiving, the stores wouldn’t be OPENED. Don’t blame Macy’s. Blame all these door-buster nitwit shoppers who’d rather fight crowds than stay home with their family.