December 12, 2019

You’re the Boss Blog: Turning Thanksgiving Day Into Black Thursday

Thinking Entrepreneur

An owner’s dispatches from the front lines.

I have spent my entire life in retail, as did my father and both of my grandfathers. I have always thought of it as an honorable profession.

But it has changed substantially over the last 50 years. In some ways it has gotten better, with more choices and lower price points. And in some ways, it has hit a new low. First came the lower level of service that accompanied those lower prices. Fair enough, it was a trade-off. Then came the phony pricing schemes, with the constant 50 percent sales, or the “buy one, get one (or two) free” sales. That was irritating enough. But this year, I think we crossed a line.

It wasn’t good enough for the biggest retailers to open the day after Thanksgiving at 5 or 6 a.m. This year we finally went mad. Some of the big stores started their sales at midnight — or even at 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. This means that the employees had to get to the store right after their Thanksgiving dinners.

Forget the question of whether this is really necessary. It isn’t. The world won’t come to an end if people have to wait until Friday morning to go shopping. This is about decency, fairness and even safety. What do we think is going to happen when thousands of employees drive home after a full day’s work and after having lost a night’s sleep? Almost 200,000 Target employees have signed a petition asking corporate headquarters to allow them their day off.

I have admired, respected and shopped at Target for years. But I wonder what they are thinking. I can tell you what they say. They say they need to remain competitive (in this blog post, an executive vice president discusses the decision in more detail). But in what regard? In the race to the bottom?

Target has led the market in having better products, better looking stores and more engaging ads. They were not the first big retailer to open early for Black Friday, and there are certainly companies whose labor practices have attracted more scrutiny. In explaining this decision, Target’s human resources director said that the company’s “guests” would prefer to go shopping the night before rather than have to wake up in the middle of the night to shop before dawn. I’ve got an idea. How about opening at 9 a.m.? It seems to have worked just fine for about 100 years.

Target likes to call its customers “guests.” They are customers, not guests (even if they are spending the night). I get it. Guests sounds classier. But this is faux class. Real class is treating both your customers and your employees well. How about taking the lead in stopping this  competition, which is turning Thanksgiving Day into black Thursday? Is shopping what we should be thankful for?

One hundred years ago, it was factory workers who were being taken advantage of, which resulted in bloody battles and the birth of many unions. Are we going backward? What’s next, working Christmas Day? Family values are not about saving money on a plasma TV. The retail employees and their families deserve to have their holidays off.

All retailers have to come to terms with what hours they are going to be open. No matter what time you open or close, someone is going to be unhappy. The owner of the business has to balance the needs and wants of the customers with the needs and wants of the employees. At the end of the day (or season in this case), it is a zero-sum game. Yes, sales were up for this year’s Thanksgiving weekend, but it’s likely those sales would have been made in the coming weeks even without the early openings.

The fact is, most retailers did not choose to open on Thanksgiving night. Why not? Wouldn’t it have helped them be more competitive? Perhaps it would have (I’ve noted that no matter what time we close, someone is occasionally going to pound on the door). But most companies would never consider it.

Would you?

Jay Goltz owns five small businesses in Chicago.

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