Flashback: Black Thursday

November 14, 2012

This column originally ran in the St. Helena Star newspaper on November 23, 2011. Unfortunately, it’s even worse this year — stores are opening earlier Thursday than ever.

Ah, the relaxing, heartwarming holiday that is Thanksgiving. Friends and family having polished off a big breakfast, there are dishes to be washed, parades to be watched, and games to be cheered. Soon starts the ceremonial sacrifice of the big bird, and the stuffing, trussing and basting will begin in earnest. With all the breathing bodies, the oven continuously baking and the furnace cranked up (because great-grandma is always cold), the house takes on a sauna-like atmosphere. Children dash through the house with pitted olives on their fingertips to shouts of “You’ll spoil your dinner!” Potatoes are peeled, green beans steamed, cranberries sauced and gravy thickened. And eventually, finally, it’s time to attend the well-set table, where the slightly stained tablecloth is covered with strategically placed serving pieces. Candles are lit, wines and ciders are poured, grace is said, and a lovely leisurely meal unfolds, followed by pumpkin pie and perhaps an after-dinner drink or two. Then there are more dishes to be done, leftovers to be divided and stored, and place settings, platters and chairs to be returned to their original positions. And eventually, finally, the cooks and their well-sated friends and relations come to rest, enjoying a relaxing evening of comfort and companionship, for which we all give thanks.

But not for too long, because now it’s time to go shopping! Yes, you heard me correctly: for those Thanksgiving revelers who like a little greed with their gravy, Big Retail’s holiday sales start on Thursday this year. This hyped-up shopping frenzy was formerly held on “Black Friday,” referring to the date when major retailers were profitably “in the black” each year (as a small-town retailer, I’m still waiting). Now in a derby of the disgraceful, Toys R Us is leading the pack, opening Thanksgiving at 9 p.m., followed by Walmart at 10, and Target, Macy’s and Best Buy at midnight. Eager to squeeze every last shopping dollar out of the season, Big Retail is co-opting Thanksgiving with too-good-to-be-missed deals on items essential to the survival of the species, like HDTVs, Playstations and stand mixers. Shoppers often line up for hours before the doors open, so by the time you read this paper, you should already be in the queue.

This Thanksgiving Thursday creep has led to a Black Friday backlash, with many consumers, competitors and retail employees crying, “Enough!” But will shoppers stand on principle and risk missing 60 percent off on a Tommy Hilfiger quarter-zip sweater? Big Retail has tried to deflect criticism, claiming that customer feedback demanded earlier shopping on Thanksgiving. I, for one, am sick of all these dubious anonymous messages, whether from unidentified “guests” telling Target to carve up Thanksgiving, or from whichever deity told Herman Cain to run for president. A mysterious message from above to the head of programming at E! Television is the only plausible explanation for the Kardashians. In any event, one suspects that something is getting lost in translation. Because if you know a consumer who has just spent the day waiting hand-and-foot on their family preparing a fabulous holiday feast, who afterward wants to put on shoes and go Christmas shopping until dawn, please send them to Main Street (on Friday). Imagine the triumphant moment when you finally get everyone out of your kitchen, sink into your chair, grab a glass of wine and prepare to receive the collected affections of a grateful clan, only to glimpse their collective backsides as they sprint toward the mall. Seriously? This can’t wait until dawn Friday?

Retail employees bear the brunt of it, grateful to be working but unable to spend holidays with their families; parents with small kids who must forego cooking and celebrating for sleep in order to pull the 10 p.m. or 4 a.m. shift at minimum wage for some Big Box bozo. But perhaps their bosses really are just giving a desperate-for-doorbusters public what it wants. The National Retail Federation reports 22.3 million people shopped either in stores or online during Thanksgiving Day in 2010; nearly double the number from five years ago. And brick-and-mortar stores are pressured: 33.6 percent of Thanksgiving weekend customers shopped online last year. But is luring carb-loaded, gravy-soaked, slightly buzzed bargain hunters out into the freezing cold on Thanksgiving the answer? And how many shoppers have shortened their holidays and stood shivering in line, only to be denied discounts due to bait-and-switch tactics, fine print and inventory shortages? Bargains are great, and retailers deserve to make a buck. But luring cash-strapped consumers and job-strapped employees away from home on Thanksgiving constitutes avarice that would make a Big Banker blush. If you ask me, these Big Retail turkeys are just asking to be plucked.