Thanksgiving price cuts undermine the holiday spirit as Black Friday creeps backwards

Thomas Toghramadjian, Columns Editor

Tuesdays with ThomasEnabled by enormous public demand, Black Friday sales continued their backwards march into Thanksgiving last weekend. Many retailers, including Macy’s, Wal-Mart, Kmart, JC Penny, Best Buy, and Target advertised Thursday sales this year—the latter to significant protest in the form of a petition on with over 120,000 signatures. Despite the outcry, however, shoppers turned out on Thanksgiving in large numbers—according to CNN, the day’s sales grew 24% relative to last year—indicating that “Black Thursday” might be here to stay.

The irony inherent in the commercial holiday’s placement immediately after a day of appreciation has escaped almost nobody; the incongruity has been noted so many times that it’s become an almost painful cliché. Notorious for displays of animosity and even violence between competing shoppers, Black Friday has been characterized almost as the ultimate manifestation of consumerist greed. This picture, though, is not entirely fair. Shoppers are more likely to be motivated by thrift than by indulgence, and are probably more likely to be shopping for their loved ones than for themselves. There are, however, very good reasons to be concerned by Black Friday and its creep into Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving, as it was set forth in numerous early presidential proclamations and by Abraham Lincoln’s administration, which formalized the holiday, is a day for contemplation and gratitude. While these feelings can be and should be applied very broadly, for many families Thanksgiving is dedicated to enjoying one blessing in particular—each other. The holiday has become almost synonymous with family dinners and reunions, which are made possible by the two additional days of leisure carved out by schools and employers.

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While it’s true that shopping on Black Friday can become a sort of bonding ritual in itself, hectic stores and long lines make a poor venue for real family interaction.

— Thomas Toghramadjian

The most obvious consequence of early Black Friday sales are not on those who decide to shop, but on those who are obliged to work. The Target employee who started the petition noted that the loss of several family members awakened him to the value of time spent together during the holiday season. While some retailers reported that the bulk of their Thanksgiving hours were filled voluntarily, a number of employees said that they were not given the choice to opt out of Thursday shifts. A survey—admittedly informally conducted by yet another petition author—found that of fifty-six employees at Kmart stores, only three said they had the option to take time off work on Thanksgiving. Whether or not the problem of job coercion during Thanksgiving weekend is truly endemic, it’s very clear that a significant proportion of workers would rather take the day to spend with their families. Employers should respect that wish.

Shoppers, too, are clearly affected to some extent. If stores were closed, the large numbers of consumers driving up Thanksgiving Day sales would be somewhere else—very likely at home with their families. While it’s true that shopping on Black Friday can become a sort of bonding ritual in itself, hectic stores and long lines make a poor venue for real family interaction.  By opening on Thursday evening, stores create a definite pull factor that, while unlikely to eliminate Thanksgiving dinners, could very easily cut them short.

Ironically, while Thanksgiving Day sales have skyrocketed, they provide very little net benefit to retailers—they simply displace Black Friday and weekend sales by a nearly one-to-one ratio. Meanwhile, the items consumers believe they are buying at large discounts are often priced similarly throughout the year, or made at a lower quality to compensate for the reduced price. So corporations get bad press and little financial benefit, employees lose their Thanksgiving dinners, and customers trade family time for largely illusive deals. In light of such a clear lose-lose-lose, it would be better for everybody if Black Friday went back to where it belongs.

TUESDAYS WITH THOMAS is published weekly.  Columnist Thomas Toghramadjian engages readers in topics ranging from politics to literature to science.