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Is Gray Thursday Enough?

Nov. 15, 2013
Black Friday, Shopping
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Last year, many stores broke the tradition of kicking off their sales events the Friday after Thanksgiving, also known as Black Friday. Target stores opened at 9 p.m. on “Gray Thursday,” a three-hour bump up from their Friday-at-midnight opening in 2011. National retailers Wal-Mart, Old Navy, Kmart, Toys R Us and Sears are among those retail outlets looking to get a jump on the holiday shopping season this year by opening on Thanksgiving – some of them even opening before noon but closing their doors in time for Thanksgiving dinner.

A report published by the research firm ShopperTrak in 2012 reported mixed results for the Gray Thursday strategy. The firm found that while retail foot traffic increased by 3.5 percent, to as many as 300 million store visits, sales decreased 1.8 percent on Black Friday 2012. “Black Friday continues to be an important day in retail,” ShopperTrak founder, Bill Martin, said in a press release detailing the 2012 report. “This year… more retailers than last year began their ‘doorbuster’ deals on Thursday, Thanksgiving itself. So while foot traffic did increase on Friday, those Thursday deals attracted some of the spending that’s usually meant for Friday.”

However, he noted that shoppers were still lining up to take advantage of Black Friday deals – even if sales started the day before.

Employee and Consumer Pushback

Some brick-and-mortar stores have had to contend with disgruntled employees when deciding to encroach on traditional Thanksgiving. Last year, workers at Walmart stores around the country cited the company’s 8 p.m. opening on Thanksgiving as one of the main reasons to walk off the job and protest.

Casey St. Clair, a part-time worker at Target, told CNN last year that she would rather be home with her family on Thanksgiving than kicking off the retailer’s Black Friday sale. “My main issue is not with people wanting to shop; they can do that still, though I think that they can hold off until Friday without the world crashing down,” she said. “My anger is aimed at the loss of a day that, up until now, was considered important enough for only the most essential services to be open.”

Despite these employee complaints and protests, stores appear to be rolling back their opening times even earlier. Kmart recently unveiled its plans to open at 6 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning this year and stay open for 41 hours straight. The announcement was roundly criticized on social media for keeping some workers from attending a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.

“We understand many associates want to spend time with their families during the holiday,” the retailer’s social media team posted on the company’s Facebook page. “With this in mind Kmart stores do their very best to staff with seasonal associates and those who are needed to work holidays.”

Emphasis Still on Black Friday, For Now

While a check of Kmart’s Facebook page shows that many people are vehemently against the retailer’s decision to stay open all through Thanksgiving, some people don’t feel as strongly about the retailer staying open all of Thanksgiving Day. Allen Wenzel of Oconto Falls, Wisc. is one of the few people voicing a neutral attitude about Kmart’s decision. “I think a lot of people would go for that,” he told the Green Bay Press Gazette.

Kmart’s decision to stay open through the time traditionally allotted for Thanksgiving dinner could be the canary in the coal mine with respect to a Gray Thursday. If the chain’s strategy is a success, other retailers will probably follow suit. However, stores don’t appear to be making this year’s Gray Thursday openings into major events – probably for fear of a pushback from consumers, family-advocacy groups and their own workers. Instead they have tried to keep the focus on Black Friday. For example, Old Navy has a $1 million Black Friday giveaway, but is without a major promotion for their Thanksgiving Day opening, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. to midnight.

Retailers like Old Navy most likely see an opportunity to make money from shoppers who may have the day off from their jobs, but are trying to avoid been seen as heartless – as if to say, “We’re here for you if you’re looking to get some shopping done on Thanksgiving, no big deal.”

Ultimately, the shoppers will decide with their wallets if retailers’ Gray Thursday strategies are encroachment enough on their holiday traditions.

Holiday Shopping image courtesy of Shutterstock.