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Black and Blue Over Black Friday

It seems to me retail executives are going too far, letting business objectives blot out the bigger picture about the holidays and ignoring a cultural shift away from crass commercialism.

November 23, 2011
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Related Topics: Organizational Structure, Customer Service, Labor Trends, Work/Life Balance, Values, HR Services and Administration, Employee Communication, Corporate Culture, Motivating Employees, Scheduling, Policies and Procedures, Workforce Planning
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Black Friday could leave a black mark on retailers' reputations.

You probably heard something about the controversy. Major retailers like Macy's, Target and Best Buy decided this year to push up their shopping hours on the day after Thanksgiving. Several are opening at midnight the evening of Thanksgiving. Walmart reportedly is offering some deals at 10 p.m. Thanksgiving night.

An earlier start to what's traditionally known as Black Friday is a bid to grab a greater share of Americans' holiday spending. To be sure, retailers are under pressure to compete. And holiday dollars are crucial. But the change has sparked a backlash, with some employees and customers rejecting the way the extra shopping time crimps family time.

The most prominent rebellion is an online petition calling on Target to cancel the midnight opening. As of early Wednesday, it had close to 200,000 signatures.

"A midnight opening robs the hourly and in-store salary workers of time off with their families on Thanksgiving Day," the petition states. "By opening the doors at midnight, Target is requiring team members to be in the store by 11 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. A full holiday with family is not just for the elite of this nation—all Americans should be able to break bread with loved ones and get a good night's rest on Thanksgiving!"

Such protests have touched a nerve. In recent years, Americans have grown more focused on values—not just a great value. The public cares more about labor matters, as seen by the initial sympathy for the Occupy Wall Street movement and its attention to the wealth divide.

Already, workers report high levels of stress on the job—to the point that productivity may be suffering. And many lower-wage employees have to hold down more than one position to make ends meet.

"Many families' work schedules make it impossible to have weekends or even dinner together," Judy Ancel, director of the University of Missouri-Kansas City Institute for Labor Studies, wrote in a recent essay. "That's why holidays provide the only opportunity for so many extended families to see each other. … The just-in-time workforce means just no time for the family."

To its credit, Target has addressed the Black Friday/Black Thursday issue directly. In a question-and-answer posted on its site, executive vice president of stores Tina Schiel argued that many if not most employees look forward to the early opening:

"When I heard from several stores that news of the midnight opening was met with enthusiasm from the majority of our team members, I wasn't surprised one bit," Schiel said. "While it's hard work, there's just this great frenetic energy about the day. Put simply: It's a lot of fun."

Schiel has a point. I remember working in restaurants on some holidays and enjoying a festive vibe. Still, it seems to me Schiel and other retail executives are going too far here, letting business objectives blot out the bigger picture about the holidays and ignoring a cultural shift away from crass commercialism.

Companies opening at midnight or earlier on Black Friday may ring in more revenue. But they also may be bruising their good name.

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