Does Purpose Pay On Thanksgiving Day?

Danielle Beurteaux

Man holding gift bagsRetailers opening stores on Thanksgiving Day is a bit of a contentious issue. For some shoppers, Turkey Day shopping has become part of their holiday tradition. For others, it represents diminishment of a beloved holiday.

This year, Sears stores will open at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, and remain open until 2 a.m. Target and Macy’s will also open that evening.

Retailers began to open on Thanksgiving a few years ago, an attempt to get a head start on Black Friday sales. But that boost in sales (although more about that later) sometimes comes at the expense of reputation, with increasing criticism of the commercialization of what’s traditionally considered a day spent with family turned into just another shopping day.

Outdoor outfitter REI, hardware store Lowe’s, and game store GameStop, among others, have declared their doors will remain closed on Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving has turned into a challenge for retailers – how to maintain good will with the decision to open the doors or keep them shut. Do shoppers respond to purpose when deals are at stake?

Customers aren’t buying

Some retailers say they don’t have much choice about opening on Thanksgiving. But shoppers are so used to sales happening throughout the year that traditional Black Friday sales are losing power to impress.

So while some stores are staying closed for various reasons, sales figures back up their decision. Thanksgiving and Black Friday sales fell by 11% last year, and 5% fewer shoppers hit the stores over the holiday weekend.

Big stores like Macy’s make it an event. They said over 15,000 people visited their Herald Square store in New York last year. (Although how many were part of the 5 million holiday-season tourists who come to the city and would visit anyway?)

Some retail analysts think more stores staying shuttered on Thanksgiving will lead to better Black Friday sales figures this year.

There’s also been a backlash fueled by those who don’t think retail employees should have to work instead of spending time with their families and unhappy employees who don’t feel they have much choice but to say yes to the extra hours.

An opportunity to differentiate

If the sales aren’t there, an opportunity to differentiate a brand certainly is. REI made its point with a news release late October. All stores (and offices and distribution centers) will be closed both Thanksgiving and Black Friday – and they’re even paying their staff full pay on both days. REI president and CEO Jerry Stritzke was quoted as saying, “As a member-owned co-op, our definition of success goes beyond money. We believe that a life lived outdoors is a life well lived and we aspire to be stewards of our great outdoors. We think that Black Friday has gotten out of hand and so we are choosing to invest in helping people get outside with loved ones this holiday season, over spending it in the aisles.”

The co-op is using this as a marketing moment with the campaign #OptOutside.

Because REI is a members-owned co-op, it operates differently from other retailers (for example, it’s answerable to members, not external shareholders). Their emphasis on employee and consumer well-being, corporate responsibility, and, of course, the outdoors meshes well with their structure (and what they sell).

But stationer Staples, which is not a co-op, also announced that it would remain closed on Thanksgiving. For the previous two Thanksgivings, its stores opened. This year, the company’s president for North America was quoted as saying, “We want our customers and associates to enjoy Thanksgiving their own way.”

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Danielle Beurteaux

About Danielle Beurteaux

Danielle Beurteaux is a New York–based writer who covers business, technology, and philanthropy. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and on Popular Mechanics, CNN, and Institutional Investor's Alpha, among other outlets.

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