Black Thursday

Macy’s has announced that most of its stores will open on Thanksgiving this year, joining the trend of retailers who are trying to start the holiday shopping season a day before the traditional Black Friday openings. This move will no doubt create controversy in the same way that Toys R Us did when it began the trend a couple years ago. The fact that Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is such a longstanding part of fabric of the holiday adds insult to injury for traditionalists who lament the fact that “holiday creep” is ruining Thanksgiving.

Et tu, Macy’s?

The arguments that retailers are ruining Thanksgiving by turning it into just another shopping day before Christmas are compelling. One sympathizes with store employees who will not have a whole day off to spend with loved ones (although, in fairness, there are plenty of members of the armed forces, police and fire departments and other professions who have always worked on holidays). But ultimately, you are either somebody who finds the idea of shopping on Thanksgiving abhorrent or you are one of the (probably many) people who will be lined up outside Macy’s that evening after your turkey dinner. Nothing I write in this post will change which side of that particular fence you are on, and that’s not my focus. To me the question isn’t whether opening stores on Thanksgiving will ruin Thanksgiving, but whether it will ruin Black Friday.

Much like Super Bowl Sunday, Black Friday has become a very real, if unofficial American holiday. The day has its own set of traditions and rituals. If you love to shop amid the hustle and bustle of crowds, the day was made for you. If you hate shopping or capitalism in general, there’s a tradition for you as well. For people like me who are fascinated by the dark side of human behavior, there’s the annual tradition of turning on the news to catch footage of that year’s Doorbuster Sales gone wrong. And for the retailers themselves, it’s their day to be in the spotlight, much like the opening day of baseball season used to be, back when more people cared about baseball. Whether you love or hate Black Friday, there’s no denying that it has traditionally been a very distinct kickoff to a month-long shopping season.

I wonder if, by moving things up to a day that already has its own identity, retailers are ultimately diminishing the specialness of that kickoff. Sure, a lot of people will continue to shop on Black Friday if for no other reason than a lot of Americans have that day off from work. But I suspect that there are a lot of people who shop on Black Friday because doing so is an event, a cultural touchstone. By moving the action to Thanksgiving night, all of a sudden, standing in a line at 6 a.m. on a late November Friday morning starts to feel less like being part of a once-a-year happening and more like just standing out in the cold when you could be in bed.  

And not to get too philosophical, but I wonder if switching up the official start of holiday shopping season may make a growing number of Americans question if there even needs to be a holiday shopping season in the first place. A lot of things we do for the sake of tradition don’t always stand up to scrutiny, but we continue with them because we value tradition for its own sake. Start tinkering with the tradition part of the equation, and it gives us psychological permission to abandon the behavior. With that in mind, retailers who seek short term gains by encroaching on Turkey Day should take care not to kill the Black Friday goose that has laid golden eggs all these years.

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