Black Friday creep and the great Thanksgiving divide

Boston GlobeNovember 26, 2013 

A few years ago, Doug Matthews, an insurance executive from New Jersey, posted a rant on Allrecipes.com about how holiday shopping had overtaken Thanksgiving. “Respect the Bird!” was his refrain, and he seemed to strike a chord — generating more comments and pageviews than anything the recipe-sharing site had seen before, inspiring the launch of a “Respect the Bird” campaign.

For a while, it seemed to work. Thousands of people signed a “Take Back Thanksgiving” pledge. Matthews was interviewed on radio shows and appeared on the front page of The Washington Post. He thought he might be in the vanguard of an anti-Black Friday movement.

Instead, the opposite happened. The arms race expanded. And this year, many big box stores plan to open on Thanksgiving itself, well before any turkey gets cold.

I’d personally rather get a root canal than spend Thanksgiving afternoon racing down Aisle 7 to grab the last Big Hug Elmo. But as far as Matthews’s movement goes, I’m singing with the choir. There are giant cultural divides in this country — over guns, abortion, Obamacare — but a less-heralded one surrounds the Thanksgiving shopping culture.

It’s “No Way in Hell” vs. “Hell Yes, Point Me Toward the Electronics Department.”

The “No Way” voters have always been vocal, in an armchair-Internet-activist way. Year after year, people post passionate appeals on the Walmart Facebook page. And hundreds of thousands of people have signed petitions asking stores to stay closed longer, to preserve family time for low-wage, low-clout workers.

The standard retailers’ response is that employees are overjoyed at the chance to earn more money. But the real answer lies with our country’s shopping fixation, which pits an old-time holiday against some powerful cultural forces: shopping as recreation, shopping as sport, shopping as proxy family time, shopping as Pavlovian response to apparent deep discounts.

In a survey this year, the National Retail Federation found that 33 million Americans — nearly a quarter of those who plan to shop this coming weekend — will buy things on Thanksgiving Day.

The survey doesn’t break down how many of those shoppers will be in stores and how many will be online. Either way, the market pressures are the same, said Tom Kochan, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

“The more convenient the Internet becomes,” he said, “the more convenient the stores have to become.”

Do the naysayers have a prayer? Consumers sometimes manage to change corporate practices in pursuit of social goals. Patricia Jurewicz, director of the San Francisco-based Responsible Sourcing Network, told me about a successful campaign, waged largely through social media, to convince the clothing store Zara to stop using cotton from Uzbekistan, a country with terrible child labor practices.

And sometimes, Jurewicz says, a single letter to the right well-placed executive can prompt change: An e-mail to Steve Jobs, complaining about minerals sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo, started Apple on the path of becoming a clean-supply-chain leader.

But the current Thanksgiving protests, spread among many stores, are too diffuse to make a difference, Kochan says. The real challenge to Black Friday creep will come when the labor market changes: when retail workers have the clout to say no or the power to organize. Or when enough of their well-placed allies band together to shame the companies that open on Thanksgiving, or reward the companies — Costco, BJs, and Nordstrom among them — that stay closed.

To various interest groups, this should present a challenge. Shopping-creep seems a natural cause for family-oriented advocacy groups, Kochan said. If they “began to really protest and began to organize around these issues,” he said, “then you would see some rethinking.”

Until then, Thanksgiving purists can’t expect much more than what we have now: small rants, drowned out by noise about great deals. Matthews will still be tweeting this week from the handle RespecttheBird. Also, every workday morning at 7, he gets off the train at Penn Station and yells, “Respect the Bird!” at the flagship Macy’s on Seventh Avenue. But nobody seems to notice or care.

Joanna Weiss is a Boston Globe columnist. Reach her at weissglobe.com. Twitter: @JoannaWeiss.

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