This Thanksgiving, millions of Americans will slide back from their dinner tables, get in their cars, and head for a postprandial shopping trip to snap up deals at a holiday sale.
Please, please do not be one of those people—both for your own sake, and out of respect for the retail staff who get dragooned into coming to work on a day they should have off with family.
I know. Complaining about our mania for holiday bargain-hunting, and that Black Friday now begins on Brown Thursday, is already a bit of a cliché. Progressive-minded writers seem to spend every November lamenting the misfortune of employees forced to show up to their job on Thanksgiving. The econ bloggers at ThinkProgress have practically devoted an entire month of coverage to the subject. Meanwhile, stores like Costco, Crate and Barrel, and Marshalls now brag about the fact that they don’t open on our national day of gluttony as a way of painting themselves as family-friendly.
But it bears repeating. Thanksgiving shopping, as it currently stands, is an awful tradition that should be boycotted.
To start, Black Friday (and its Thursday lead-in) is a bit of a sham. Yes, some of those cut-rate flat-screen TVs are a real steal. But, as the Wall Street Journal explained last year, many of the supposedly great deals are a “carefully engineered illusion.” Retailers regularly mark down merchandise from heavily inflated prices to trick shoppers into believing they’re getting a bargain. Meanwhile, prices often drop further as the holiday season progresses and stores try to clear out inventory, and better deals can sometimes be found at other times of the year. Plus, in binge-shopping over Thanksgiving weekend, behavioral psychology suggests you’re pretty much dooming yourself to overspend, including on full-price items that just happen to be sitting next to those marked-down toaster ovens.
In short, those who shop on Thanksgiving are practically begging to be fleeced.
Now about all those poor Walmart, Best Buy, and JCPenney* employees who are stuck working instead of watching football. The big-picture problem here is that the United States is, of course, the only rich nation where workers aren’t guaranteed paid vacations or holidays, which is why companies like Walmart, which has stayed open on every Thanksgiving since 1988, can ask their staff to come in whether they want to or not. If we had a humane national vacation policy, none of this would be an issue.
But we don’t. And so retailers are mostly free to keep whatever hours they choose, and demand their workforce deal with it. Some companies, like Walmart and Kmart, do say they offer their staff bonus pay for working Thanksgiving (though exactly how much, in Walmart’s case, is a bit of a question). But in some cases, workers don’t have any choice but to clock in. Kmart employees, for instance, say they’ve been told they could lose their jobs or be otherwise punished if they don’t come in. Target workers are also reportedly not allowed to ask for time off work. Lots of retail workers are probably thankful for the extra holiday paycheck. But many would probably prefer not to be forced to babysit while a bunch of rampaging bargain-hunters tears through the television aisle.
What’s especially galling about this is that early Thanksgiving day sales don’t necessarily benefit the retail industry as a whole. Instead, they’re the product of a massive collective action problem. Opening up on Thursday doesn’t increase sales overall. But companies are worried that if they don’t, their customers will simply do their shopping elsewhere. “Retailers are trying to get a jump on the competition,” Bill Martin of mall-traffic tracker ShopperTrak told MarketWatch last year. “Thursday is simply selling the stuff at the expense of Black Friday.” Many of the stores that do choose to stay closed on Thanksgiving, like Neiman Marcus, Sam’s Club, Costco, and Crate and Barrel cater to somewhat wealthier clientele and don’t rely on massive markdowns to court customers. They have the luxury of sitting out of the competition. But we can’t rationally expect big-box stores like Best Buy, Walmart, and Kmart that cater to the cash-strapped middle class to do the same.
We could try to solve this problem with regulation. Massachusetts, Maine, and Rhode Island ban stores from opening on Thanksgiving. A state lawmaker in Ohio has introduced a bill that would force stores to pay employees triple wages for working on the holiday and allow them to take the day off without facing retaliation.
But until workers can freely choose whether to show up for the job on Thanksgiving, consumers who take advantage of these overhyped sales are simply voting for the gross status quo. Right now, Brown Thursday is a terrible bargain for society. Don’t fall for it.
*Correction, Nov. 26, 2014: This post originally misspelled the name of retailer JCPenney.