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Shopping Addicts Be Warned: Black Friday Has Become Grey Thursday


The weekend following Thanksgiving has marked the start of the holiday shopping rush for Americans since the 19th century. It also begins the most stressful times for practicing and recovering shopping addicts.

New York City’s big department stores embraced the idea as a marketing gimmick in the early 20th century, staging events, releasing their first Christmas ads, and hosting parades, most notably Macy’s annual extravaganza, which debuted in 1924.  Thanksgiving parades traditionally ended with an appearance of Santa Claus, signaling the start of the last great holiday rush of the year.  During the Great Depression, facilitating the post-Thanksgiving shopping frenzy became so important to merchants they lobbied to move up Thanksgiving a week in 1939.

The use of the name “Black Friday” became popular later in the 20th century.  Initially it was used by the Philadelphia Police Department to describe the massive traffic jams and overcrowded sidewalks as downtown stores were mobbed from opening to closing.  In 1975, the Associated Press released an article entitled “Folks on Buying Spree Despite Down Economy,” which described the day after Thanksgiving thusly: “Store aisles were jammed.  Escalators were nonstop people.  It was the first day of the Christmas shopping season and despite the economy, folks here went on a buying spree.”

That’s why the bus drivers and cab drivers call today ‘Black Friday,’” a sales manager at Gimbels said as she watched a traffic cop trying to control a crowd of jaywalkers.  ”They think in terms of the headaches it gives them.”  It only took on a positive ring in the ’80s, when some shop owners pointed out that the profitable, post-Thanksgiving rush put “black ink” on their balance sheets for the first time of the year.

Black or Grey Thursday?

Black Friday is increasingly creeping up on Thanksgiving and becoming a holiday in its own right.  Competition — for sales and deals — has spiked in the last several years.  Historically Black Friday sales would be sustained through the Saturday and Sunday after Thanksgiving, but the practice has disappeared, perhaps in an effort to give a greater sense of urgency for the shopping deals stores offer.  Now, instead of sales continuing into the weekend, the drive is towards earlier and earlier openings, which is leading many to call Thanksgiving itself Black or Grey Thursday.

Also important to note is that Black Friday hasn’t always been the busiest shopping day of the year.  From 1993 to 2001 it ranked from fifth to tenth on the list of busiest shopping days of the year.  In 2003, it became the busiest and has held that position since.  Much of the urgency, long lines, violence, and fights only started making an appearance once Black Friday took its place as the busiest shopping day of the year.

In 2010, Toys “R” Us was the first to open at 10pm on Thanksgiving Day.  Target opened at midnight on Thanksgiving night last year.  This year, in 2012, Target, Toys “R” Us, Walmart, Sears, and other retailers will open at 8pm, with Best Buy waiting until midnight (which almost seems antiquated at this point).

“Customers repeatedly told us that they liked being able to do their Black Friday shopping after they had finished their turkey dinners,” says Troy Rice, executive vice president of stores and services at Toys R Us, “so they didn’t have to spend all night outside in line and could sleep in on Friday.”

Other retailers also report moving up opening time due to consumer demand.  Kathee Tesija, executive vice president of merchandising for Target, told CNN Money that they were shifting to opening earlier on Thanksgiving also because customers want the shift.

“There is a demand to have access to our stores on Thanksgiving Day,” said Tom Sands, executive vice president of Old Navy’s U.S. unit.  ”That demand was probably there last year.  The additional stores opening this year is a response to that.”

J.C. Penney Co Inc, which is trying to reverse a steep slide in sales while radically transforming its stores, said it would open at 6am on Black Friday.  Most retailers will spread their offers out over several hours to try to catch shoppers at various times, including the wee hours of Friday morning.  Toys R Us, for example, will have one round of “door busters” at 8pm on Thanksgiving and another at 5am on Black Friday.  Sears Holdings Corp’s Sears and Kmart stores will be open on Thanksgiving Day, a decision the company said stemmed in part from feedback it received from its “Shop Your Way” loyalty plan members who wanted more flexible shopping times.

In reaction to increased violence on Black Friday, some retailers claim that the change to earlier opening hours on Thanksgiving Day itself is designed to spread out the wave of 134 million people the National Retail Federation expects to see this weekend.  A Reuters report undermines safety as a true motivation for earlier and earlier sales. Stores like Target and Toys “R” Us are offering holiday specials earlier to kick-start the biggest “selling season” of the year, a season where most U.S. retailers earn more than a third of their annual sales.

“At this rate,” Nancy Koehn, a historian at the Harvard Business School, tells Marketplace, “Thanksgiving might disappear altogether, or the month of November will be called ‘Black November.’”

But what about the employees at these retailers?  Traditionally, Thanksgiving is the one day in the holiday season retail employees have off.  But if they have to be prepared to open at 8pm, can they really have a day to be with their family – especially when most will have to work double shifts?

At there are currently at least 20 petitions asking Target and other retailers to push back Black Friday openings and let employees enjoy the holiday at home with friends and family.  CNN Money has reported this will be the earliest openings ever on Thanksgiving.

In response, retailers have offered a different conception of Black Friday as being fun for employers.  Target told Reuters that, “anecdotally,” many of its employees get excited about working Black Friday.  Steven Restivo, a Walmart spokesman, wrote in an email to The Huffington Post that many of Walmart’s workers are looking forward to the store’s Black Friday festivities.

“The super majority of our 1.3 million associates are excited about Black Friday and are ready to serve our customers,” he wrote.

If this is so, why are Walmart workers are planning to strike at 1,000 locations across the country on Black Friday?

Walmart isn’t the only major retailer that has angered workers by opening on Thanksgiving.  Employees have created multiple online petitions asking Target, Toys “R” Us, Kmart and Sears not to open at 9pm on Thanksgiving Day so employees can have the holiday off.

The Chief Merchandising Officer for Sears and Kmart, Ron Boire, generously issued the following statement: “We understand that many of our associates want to spend time with their families on the holiday, so Sears and Kmart will staff its stores with seasonal associates and those who have volunteered to work on Thanksgiving Day,”

Best Buy Co Inc, Macy’s Inc and Kohl’s Corp said their stores would remain closed on Thanksgiving and open at 12am on Black Friday.  If you have to be ready to work at 12am, are you really going to spend Thanksgiving Day relaxing with family and friends or are you going to go to bed early in anticipation of unruly crowds and a double shift?

The projected protests and petitions are not likely to motivate change on the behalf of the big retailers.  The stakes are high and in order to work, the approach will require more protesters and persuading frenzied shoppers to resist the tempting deals.  Zev J. Eigen, an associate professor at Northwestern University School of Law, who specializes in labor relations, put the problem this way: “Shoppers in the parking lot will say ‘Oh, that’s terrible — OK, where do I get my discounted electronics. That’s one of the big challenges for the labor movement. We’ll sign online petitions, but we won’t vote with our wallets.”

And what about the safety of workers and of consumers?  Retailers are continually employing strategies that increase the risk for mob-type behavior and violence.

Black Friday is increasingly marred by brutish behavior, often leading to injury and destruction.  The combination of time-sensitive deals, psychological strategies, and the depressed economy all create a perfect storm where mob mentality pervades Black Friday.  Dr. Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist at Stanford University, wrote in Psychology Today how retailers use five psychological strategies to get consumers out on Black Friday and leave their stores with far more than they intended to buy.

These include:

  • Using an inflated “suggested list price” clearly labeled next to the store’s discounted price.  Neuroscientists have long noted the brain’s reward center lights up incredibly fast with the thought of a bargain.  Normally, when you are contemplating a purchase, the brain registers a pain response at the thought of spending money, but with the dual labels, the brain feels the high of saving money without the pain of actually spending the money for that item.
  • Using scents to put you in the mood for shopping.  Studies show that consumers spend more when the store’s scent triggers positive emotional responses.  Retailers use scent marketers to create unique scent profiles for their customers.  For example, the following is a scent profile created by Scent Air for Bloomindales: “The soft scent of Baby Powder speaks to a mother’s memory in the infant department.  The intimate apparel departing is inviting with the soothing scent of Lilac, while Coconut wafts through the swimsuit department.  And during the holiday shopping season the scents of Sugar Cookie, Chocolate and Evergreen create a warm and pleasant experience.”
  • Food sales and samples in stores that specialize in non-food products.  Retailers are betting on the sight and smell of treats like cinnamon buns will make everything more tempting.  Studies show that high-fat, high-sugar foods shift the brain into a state that makes you more likely to take financial risks and seek instant gratification.   Whether you indulge or not, you may have less willpower to resist sales.
  • Time pressure.  By having limited deals, such as door-opening sales, retailers can create a sense of urgency during which a consumer is less likely to think deeply about a purchase and be kicked into the competitive spirit, where the challenge of beating another person to bargain can mean that questionable, unneeded items are thrown into the cart.
  • Give-away deals.  Retailers will display an item so deeply discounted that they are probably taking a loss on it.  The trick here is to stun consumers with a price so low that consumers won’t doubt the value of less steeply discounted items.

Strategies such as these psych-up shoppers and feed the emotional states of desperation and hyper-competitive behavior, according to psychologist, Jeff Gardere.  Gardere appeared on CNN during Back Friday in 2011 to discuss the increased reports of violence.  That year there were violent incidents reported in South Carolina, North Carolina, California, Florida, New York, Alabama, Connecticut, Michigan, Ohio, and Arizona, in addition to prolific reports of fighting at retailers over various items.  While Walmart seems the typical locale for violence and fights, they are not the only major retailer reporting an uptick in violence and mob-type behavior.

Often the violence and arguments erupt over trivial sales.  On Black Friday 2011, violence and the actual value of the item seemed mismatched.  Consider the following reports:

  • The Waffle Maker Riot: A screaming mob of shoppers showed aggressive consumerism, mindless violence, and a complete lack of regard for other human beings when fighting over $2 waffle makers.
  • Pepper spray and Xboxes: A 30-something woman sprayed shoppers around her with pepper spray to get to a discounted Xbox 360.  Twenty people suffered from the spray.
  • Video games and police brutality: A 54 year-old male was knocked out by police after grabbing a video game and tucking it under his arm to guard it from the swarming masses.  The man was left lying unconscious in a pool of his own blood for about ten minutes before being arrested for shoplifting and resisting arrest.
  • Parking lot robberies: Many Black Friday shoppers from South Carolina to California were held up by robbers for their purchases.  At least two were shot and critically injured.
  • Smartphone smack down: Two women were taken to the hospital for injuries sustained while trying to get a $35 smartphone deal.  One was shoved down to the ground, kicked in the face, and sustained injuries on her face, arms and hands.

So, is the risk to life and limb and missing out on family gatherings worth a sweet deal on Christmas gifts and some extra cash in your pocket?  This is a question America’s consumers are increasingly having to ask themselves.  Here is a fair warning to all you shopping and bargain addicts, this year is already shaping up to be a messier one then last year.


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Filed under: Holidays · Tags: Black Friday, christmas, consumerism, grey Thursday, Kmart, retail, sales, Sears, shopping, shopping addiciton, Target, Thanksgiving, Toys R Us, Walmart is operated by Recovery Brands LLC, a subsidiary of American Addiction Centers, Inc.
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