- The Washington Times - Monday, November 19, 2012

Jeanne Maddox-Columna says she is not about to let some greedy retailers step on her “Waltons moment” this Thanksgiving.

The mother of six from Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., and her four daughters have a family tradition of hitting the stores and searching out the “door-buster deals” in the dawn hours of Black Friday, a rush of retail therapy after the quiet of a Thanksgiving celebrated at home. But across the nation, big-box retailers such as Sears, Target and Kmart are seeking to get a jump on the Christmas season by opening their doors in the early evening to Thanksgiving Day shoppers in an effort dubbed by some as Gray Thursday.

The companies say they are simply accommodating the desires expressed by many of their patrons, but the “Black Friday creep” has generated surprising backlash from shoppers, store employees, investors and social critics who warn about the impact the move would have on the one American holiday that has largely resisted commercial onslaughts.

“It’s one of the few days out of the year that I get to really enjoy being home with all of my kids, playing board games, watching football and, of course, eating,” said Mrs. Maddox-Columna. “They are not spoiling my Waltons moment.”

“It’s greedy, disrespectful of family and not honoring the holiday,” she said.

Although there are some local variations, Sears, which last year held out until 4 a.m. Friday, will be opening most of its stores on Thanksgiving Day at 8 p.m., as will Toys R Us. Target, which opened at midnight Friday a year ago, has moved up its opening time to 9 p.m. Kmart, now a division of Sears, plans to be open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday, then reopen at 8 p.m. for the kickoff of its Black Friday. Altogether, at least 20 leading retail chains say they will open for at least part of Thanksgiving Day.

Target worker Casey St. Clair sent a letter to CEO Gregg Steinhafel asking him to stop the company’s Thanksgiving opening plan, and then took her gripe to the Internet.

Ms. St. Clair, a six-year part-time Target worker in California, started an online petition at Change.org seeking to pressure the company. As of late last week, more than 220,000 people had signed the plea.

Her online effort directed at Target struck a nerve. Since she posted the petition Friday, 40 other online petitions have been directed at stores such as Sears, Kohl’s and Wal-Mart, a consumer backlash that some say is just the beginning.

“We would be better off as a people if all that nonsense just stopped,” said Ruth Baxter, a middle school teacher from Friendswood, Texas, who laments the commercialization of the holiday.

Tipping point

Eager to lock in some early profits on the crucial part of the calendar, retailers have been moving up opening times steadily on Black Friday, from 8 a.m. to 4 a.m. to midnight in recent years. Ron Magliocco, the global business director for shopper marketing at the advertising giant JWT, said the earlier shopping times took off a few years back, “but the tipping point came about two years ago.”

Mr. Magliocco said he understood the retailers’ need to jump-start the holiday season given the tough economy of the past few years, but added that he was personally saddened to see the creep.

“I fear this stretching of Black Friday into Thursday is going to become broader,” he said. “There’s a point when things get a little bit too far and, in my opinion as a marketer and a human, that they are diluting the holiday.”

The backlash hasn’t been just emotional. John Harrington, president of a socially conscious investment firm in Napa, Calif., wrote directly to Target’s Mr. Steinhafel last week to protest the Thanksgiving opening. He pointedly noted that his clients own more than 16,600 shares of the Minneapolis-based retailer.

“We were shocked to discover that our company plans to open Thursday at 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day,” Mr. Harrington wrote. “This will inevitably put our employees in a situation where they must choose between keeping their jobs or spending quality time with their families. We urge you to reconsider the decision to open on Thanksgiving Day for ‘Black Friday’ and instead honor our employees and their families by giving them back an important national holiday.”

Mr. Magliocco said it is hard for one big retailer to resist when its chief rivals push the deadline forward and grab the most dedicated shoppers.

“The hysteria and the hype sort of builds on itself,” he said. “There is incredible pressure on the part of retailers to make earnings and report strong holiday sales. The earlier they can begin the season, the better they are in position of reporting strong sales.”

The National Retail Federation found that 28.7 million people did Black Friday shopping on Thanksgiving in 2011. In addition, said Mr. Magliocco, combined sales were up nearly 7 percent.

“That’s a new high in the midst of an uncertain economy,” he said. “The guy whose idea it was to open first and open early will say that is one of the reasons.”

Wal-Mart reported that its single busiest shopping period last year was at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving, he said.

Backlash

But the backlash has been so noticeable, thanks in part to the power of online activism, that stores such as Target have been forced to respond. The company last week posted an open letter defending its Thanksgiving opening, along with testimonials from company employees and executives about the wisdom of the move.

Tina Schiel, Target executive vice president for stores, said in the posting that the Thursday opening was widely discussed with employees, many of whom, she said, greeted the idea enthusiastically.

“We had so many team members who wanted to work on Thursday that hundreds of our stores are now keeping lists of volunteers who want to work if shifts open up,” she wrote. Across the company, only one-third of Target’s store team members are scheduled to work on Thanksgiving, and we continue to hear from store after store that there were more volunteers than shifts to fill.”

Surveys show that 40 percent of what is purchased on Gray Thursday is for the shoppers themselves — not others. Stores are not concerned about customers’ intentions — as long as the cash registers are ringing.

“As a retailer, I want to give you every chance to part with money at my store,” Mr. Magliocco said. “The downside from an employee perspective [is that], if I am a Target employee, I really do have to sit there half at work and half at home for my whole Thanksgiving meal.”

That is where Ken Hunt of Culloden, W.Va., said his wife will be. She has worked for Kmart for nearly 29 years, and holidays are the busiest. Even though the retired public-works employee is used to it, he said, that doesn’t mean thinks it’s a good idea.

“I think Thursday should be off-limits, set aside for family,” Mr. Hunt said. “It goes hand in hand with family values and our great country. Of course, I wish my wife didn’t have to work that day, but it’s all about which retail chain can open first and bring in the largest crowds.”