Thanksgiving or Gray Thursday?

30% of annual retail sales take place between Black Friday and Christmas. An especially high percentage of sales take place over the Thanksgiving weekend. To put this into perspective, consider just a few 2015 sales figures. On Black Friday, over 74 million Americans went shopping. While this may sound like a huge chunk of the market, in 2015, Black Friday sales were actually down (87 million shopped in 2014 and 89 million in 2012). However, in 2015, one trend remained steady: A reported 35 million Americans went shopping on Thanksgiving Day (now also know as “Gray Thursday”). What does this mean? In short, it means that more Americans are working on Thanksgiving Day then ever before.

Gray Thursday’s Imagined ROI

Last year, Macy’s, Target, Kohl’s, Toys R Us, Best Buy, Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic, Radio Shack, Kmart, Sears, JCPenney, and Sports Authority were among the large retailers who required staff to work shifts on Thanksgiving Day. In 2016, the trend appears to be bound to continue with J.C. Penney opening at 3:00 pm, Best Buy, Toys R Us and Macy’s opening at 5:00 pm, Kohl’s, Target, Walmart and Sears opening at 6:00 pm, and Kmart opening at 7:00 pm on Thanksgiving Day.

Although most companies open on Thanksgiving Day claim they rely on volunteers and seasonal workers, not all employee reports support such claims. In 2015, there were widespread reports that at Kmart and Target, employees were simply scheduled. Like many low-income workers, there was widespread fear that cancelling a shift would have a negative impact and lead to firing or fewer shifts during the remainder of the holiday season. But in many respects, the Gray Thursday trend is already old news and widely entrenched.

In 2012, Zeynep Ton argued in the Harvard Business Review that the move to Gray Thursday does not really benefit businesses or customers but it does hurt employees. First, staying open on Thanksgiving means that employers need to pay their staff more (lowering their return). Also, opening on Thursday rather than Friday does not necessarily increase Black Friday sales. As Ton observes, “It’s unlikely that opening stores earlier makes people spend more for holiday shopping; they just spend more that day and less on other days.” Second, for customers, there is no real gain: “Ten dollars off on Thursday is pretty much the same as $10 off on Friday.” But as Ton argues, there is one group definitely worse off: retail employees:

And when retailers make decisions such as opening stores on Thanksgiving, without even a clear benefit to the companies or their customers, retail employees are once again reminded of how little their companies care about their lives and well being. What difference does it make if a household with two working parents or a single-parent household hardly ever has time for a big family gathering? What difference does it make if a joyful family tradition has to be cut down to size?

How Gray Thursday Hurts Employee Engagement

The bottom line of Gray Thursday is that there is little or no proof that it is good for business but there is growing evidence that it severely compromises employee engagement. By forcing employees to work on one of their only days off year round, employers send out a message that they don’t care about their employees. This is a mistake. There is now substantial research that reveals when employees don’t feel valued at work, they are less engaged and disengaged employees are less productivity, less loyal to their company’s brand and less likely to stick around for the long haul. For employers, this means more frequent hiring, higher onboarding and training costs, lower sales, and greater risk of noncompliance. So are Gray Thursday openings worth it? At least some companies are continuing to respect Thanksgiving as a non-work day.

In 2015, Staples, REI, Gamestop, DSW, Patagonia, Burlington, P.C. Richard & Son, Nordstrom, Crate and Barrel, Bed, Bath & Beyond, Costo, Lowe’s and Home Depot were among the larger retailers who decided to not participate in Gray Thursday. For most of these companies, the decision is not a statement but simply a continuation of a longstanding tradition. A spokesperson for Home Depot explains, “We’ve never been open on Thanksgiving, so this is really no change for us, but everyone shops on the Internet now, so if they want to shop they could do it that way.”

November 19, 2016 Updated :November 19, 2016

Cait Etherington

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Originally published at talentmanagement360.com on November 19, 2016.

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