Time to Surrender in the War on Thanksgiving

This is already a nation that honors its war dead with Memorial Day automobile tent sales—a little more shopping won't kill us

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Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

A woman holds a Macy's Inc shopping bag outside a store in New York City, on Jan. 7, 2010.

We’re making our list and checking it twice: Macy’s, Kohl’s, Penney’s, Sears—open on Thanksgiving at 8 p.m. Toys R Us starts cranking at 5 p.m. Kmart at 6 a.m. Walmart never closes, ever. This year it will be perfectly possible to spend all of Thanksgiving assaulting your local shopping mall in search of Christmas presents for family members you are giving short shift to on Thanksgiving itself. We are indeed blessed. And this year the whole event is a bit ecumenical too, since Hanukkah falls on Thanksgiving, giving rise to Thanksgivukkah or Chanksgiving and the opportunity for American Jews who work in retail to have not one but two cherished holidays ruined.

We live in a 24/7 retail environment, so there’s really little reason to think we’re witnessing the unwinding of our culture because we’re buying Barbie dolls on Thanksgiving day instead of gathering family to count our blessings before everyone retreats to his or her respective electronic device. This is a nation that honors its war dead with Memorial Day automobile tent sales. Let’s not stress over the loss of Thanksgiving. You want to hit the mall, go ahead and don’t feel the least bit guilty about it. The national economy could use the spending. Me, I’m a traditionalist. I’m going to watch three football games.

How did we get here? History says the Philly cops came up with the term Black Friday for the day after Thanksgiving because the frantic shopping led to fender benders and fisticuffs in the City of Brotherly Love. Little by little, store openings on Thanksgiving Friday got pushed back earlier and earlier until we got to Midnight doorbusters. Once the midnight hour was breached, a shopping-free Thanksgiving was doomed, except in New England, where the Puritans are making a last stand. Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine still ban most Thanksgiving shopping. L.L. Bean is the only large retailer allowed to be open in Maine. At least you can buy everything you need to shoot and serve a traditional dinner.

(MORE: Not To Be a Grinch, But Holiday Shopping Is Looking Pretty Bad This Year)

Macy’s blames us for forcing it open on Thanksgiving. The early morning Black Friday frenzy simply wasn’t good enough. We wanted more chances to sprain an ankle in the rush for $20 espresso machines or the first crack at PlayStation4. “In response to interest from customers who prefer to start their shopping early, most Macy’s stores will open at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving evening, consistent with many other retailers,” the company says in a statement, as if it were grudgingly giving in to our selfishness when Macy’s would much prefer a second piece of pumpkin pie. Macy’s thinks we love shopping in a crowded, frenzied environment that has all the charm of a New York City subway station at rush hour. Then I read that UNIQLO opened a pop-up store in the Union Square  subway station in Manhattan. New Yorkers can now shop on their way to Thanksgiving dinner.

I blame Walmart. Not because the company did anything particularly wrong this year, just because Walmart will get blamed anyway. The Bentonville retailing machine upped the Thanksgiving ante year after year until it ultimately produced a fatal result when one unfortunate employee was trampled to death in 2008. This year the chain is offering a 32-in. flat screen TV for $98. That’s probably worth skipping dessert and your brother-in-law’s awful jokes. Other retailers, such as Best Buy, will offer like deals. They have to if they want to stay in the game.

(MOREThis Year, Black Friday Basically Starts a Week Early—If Not Sooner)

The broader issue, however, isn’t whether stores are open on Thanksgiving. You can always lock the kids in the house and have a traditional dinner. The broader issue is that consumers aren’t spending because they haven’t had a raise, in real dollars, since the Clinton Administration. This is particularly true in the retail segment, which gets castigated for its over reliance on part-time help. And we’ll see that again this Thanksgiving. Some stores such as Macy’s have a plan to let people volunteer to work on Thanksgiving. But for many retail employees, there’s not much of a choice—they need all the hours they can get. At least there’s holiday bonus pay for many of them, so they can use the extra dollars to buy things, like turkeys.

Come Thanksgiving, these stores will begin churning a supply of holiday spending dollars that is not increasing fast enough, which explains Walmart’s tepid results for the last two years. But until wages increase, we are going to spin our retail wheels. Sears and Penney have had absolutely awful years. If they don’t have good Thanksgiving and Christmas sales they might not make it to the next holiday season. Thanksgiving will survive; a lot of stores aren’t going to—which means by next year they’ll be fewer places to shop on Turkey Day.

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