Why Not Black Wednesday Instead?

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Doug Mataconis asks "What's the Big Deal About Retailers Opening on Thanksgiving?"

The argument against the whole practice of opening on Thanksgiving is both easy to understand and purely emotional. Retailers shouldn't be forcing their employees to choose between their families and their jobs on a day that is supposed to be about family, the argument goes, even if it means passing up a chance of earning something far higher than their normal hourly wage. While I'm sympathetic to that argument, it's worth noting that some retailers have almost always been open for at least some time on Thanksgiving Day, specifically grocery and convenience stores that are typically open until some point in the early afternoon for the convenience of customers. Clearly, this has proven to be a smart business decision because it's something that been a practice everywhere I've lived since I was at least a teenager. Just as obviously, those stores need to be staffed, albeit likely by a much smaller staff than on a normal day, during the hours the store is open. So, it's not as if the idea of stores being open on Thanksgiving is some kind of new phenomenon. All we're seeing now is an expansion of that concept into retailing, where the Christmas shopping season that traditionally starts on Black Friday can make or break a business for the entire year....

The other part of the equation, of course, is that these retailers would not be opening on Thanksgiving if they didn't think they'd get the customer traffic, and subsequent sales, to justify the cost of opening the store, which includes not just the salaries for the employees but also the additional operating costs for heat, electricity, etc. which would ordinarily be set on lower levels if the store was closed. Indeed, it seems fairly clear that the entire history of Black Friday sales beginning earlier and earlier has been a response to market demand. Otherwise, why would we consistently see such large crowds each time it happens? If shoppers show up tomorrow, then that would seem to justify that business decision that these retailers have made. If they don't, then perhaps they will have learned a lesson about how eager people are to go shopping on a day that people are typically used to staying at home (or at someone else's home) and they will react accordingly. In either case, this is how the free market works, by responding to the choices of consumers.

So, if you don't like the idea of stores being open on Thanksgiving, then the solution is to not go shopping on Thanksgiving Day. If it doesn't matter to you and you're bored enough to decide to make a trek to the mall, that's your choice as well. Whatever you decide, though, as Yglesias notes, this isn't really a "social justice" issue, it's a matter of the choices that individual make and how those choices impact the operation of businesses.

This is the standard libertarian answer. But let me offer a nonstandard libertarian counterargument: This is a collective-action problem. No one really wants to be out there on Thanksgiving, but no one can individually change a pernicious dynamic.

The retailers don't actually want to open on Thanksgiving; it costs them extra money, and the managers would rather be home with their families. But the retail environment is very tough this year, and so retailers are in a desperate race to get as many consumers as possible through their doors, as early as possible, before the Christmas budget is tapped out.

So they open earlier and earlier, thinking that the earlier they open, the more likely they are to get a big crowd seeking the handful of extremely-low-priced loss leaders that retailers offer as Black Friday specials. Customers can't line up at a competitor's store if they're already shopping at yours.

Many of the customers don't really want to be there, either. Oh, sure, some people would much rather avoid the Thanksgiving dinner table. But many of the people out on Thanksgiving Day will be low-income folks who can't afford the Black Friday deals at their regular prices. Because the stores carry only a handful of each item, they feel forced to skip the family dinner and line up so that Junior can have a new PlayStation 4 under the tree come Christmas.

And, of course, while some employees may be happy to pick up an extra shift, many others are there against their will. I worked for a drugstore in high school that mandated holiday shifts -- no overtime, not even a card from management, just a pink slip if you didn't show up. In the case of drugstores, I understood the need. So, too, with convenience stores and grocers, which provide last-minute necessities to folks who need them right now. Those stores are supporting critical holiday functions such as cooking the holiday meal and traveling to see your family. But seldom in the history of human experience has there been a critical emergency purchase of a game console.

If we could all collectively agree not to open these stores on Thanksgiving, everyone would be better off: Retailers would be able to keep the store closed and save all that overtime, and customers would be able to eat their turkey in peace. But we can't, and as a result, we're all worse off.

Of course, we do have a collective mechanism for handling these sorts of problems: the government. Not that I think thereoughtabealaw about this: The government can do almost anything, but it cannot do almost everything, and some problems are too small for the government to solve. This strikes me as one of them.

However, as I've written before, a possible solution is on the horizon: We just need to persuade at least one big-box retailer to move Black Friday to Wednesday, or maybe midnight on Thanksgiving. Pretty soon, everyone will be putting on their "Black Friday deals" on Wednesday evenings, and we can all go back to enjoying our holiday.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net