To open or not? Inside stores' Thanksgiving dilemma

First the Mall of America announced it would close on Thanksgiving. Then Macy’s said it would open even earlier on Thanksgiving than usual.

And CBL & Associates, which oversees dozens of malls nationwide, said it’s shutting down its shopping centers for the holiday, opening the next morning at 6 a.m.

After years of Black Friday’s start time creeping further and further back into Thanksgiving, something of a revolt is unfolding among retailers. It’s a tug of war over Turkey Day between the values of family time enshrined in the holiday and the truly red-blooded American pastime of getting a killer deal.

Now retailers are picking sides. Industry onlookers say the fate of Thanksgiving shopping will come down to the American consumer, who seems to largely praise holiday closures while still showing up for Thanksgiving Day deals.

For CBL, the choice to keep the lights off in its 73 malls, found in metro areas like St. Louis and Kansas City, came down to a combination of family values and hard data.

“The main (driver) was for our employees and the store employees, we wanted to give them Thanksgiving off,” said CEO Stephen Lebovitz. “It’s a family holiday and we just felt strongly as the property owners that we are responsible for a lot of peoples' wellbeing during that holiday”

CBL’s decision to close on Thanksgiving was met with resounding praise, Lebovitz said. The same seems true for the Mall of America (just scan the comments section here).  The opposite seems true for Macy’s (see the comments section here).

According to a survey by BestBlackFriday.com, a site that features Black Friday deals and trends, most Americans don’t plan to shop on the Thanksgiving holiday.

The site’s poll, conducted by SurveyMonkey, surveyed 502 U.S. adults and found 54% dislike or strongly dislike stores remaining open on Thanksgiving, with 60% saying they won’t step foot in a store that day.

Still, most of the biggest stores won’t change their Thanksgiving Day hours this year, said Phillip Dengler, the site’s co-owner, who said stores including Fossil, Stein Mart and Shoe Carnival confirmed they’ll open on the holiday.

Like many retailers, CBL’s malls began opening on Thanksgiving not long ago. In 2014, its Black Friday kickoff crept back from 12 a.m. on Friday to 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. In 2015, the malls opened at 6 p.m. on the holiday.

That’s when the talk started with the malls’ retailers, Lebovitz said: Should they close on Thanksgiving altogether? No, the stores said — at least not yet.

“There just wasn’t enough data for them to get a sense for how it would impact them,” Lebovitz recalled. “But this year they were very comfortable with the decision that we made.”

With a few years of Thanksgiving Day shopping data in hand, retailers largely believed opening on the holiday “diluted” Black Friday sales rather than adding to them, Lebovitz said, spreading the same amount of shopping over an added day. Sales on the actual Black Friday numbers dipped slightly, he said, while Thursday and Friday’s combined numbers were “almost equivalent.”

Lebovitz described Thanksgiving Day shopping as something of a grand retail experiment: First a few retailers opened for it. Then a few more felt pressure from their competition and followed.

“I think people jumped on the bandwagon for a few years there,” he said. “Now I think they’re going to go back in the other direction and realize that’s not worth it.”

Prof. Tom Arnold, who specializes in retail at the University of Richmond, sees the trend differently.

“I suspect it’s going to take over Thanksgiving eventually, just because customers seem to be available,” he said. “So why not be open?”

In Arnold’s view, the rash of stores closing on Thanksgiving only creates more incentive for their competitors to remain open. We see this elsewhere, he says: Many Chick-fil-A fans appreciate the restaurant chain’s decision to stay closed on Sundays, but that doesn’t keep them from eating out on Sundays at competing restaurants.

In other words, it’s Econ 101: If there’s a demand in a capitalistic society, a supply will occur, Arnold said.

While Thanksgiving’s family focus makes it a traditionally controversial day to shop, cultural mores change. Take Chick-fil-A, whose no-Sundays model is a holdover from what feels like a bygone era. Many businesses refused to open on Sundays once upon a time, Arnold noted. Now it’s a major day for errands and shopping in the U.S.

Likewise, Americans may cry foul when Macy’s decides to open Thanksgiving Day, but fewer denounce the convenience stores and supermarkets that remain open on that day each year.

As long as shoppers want to make purchases on Thanksgiving, stores will continue to accommodate them, Arnold said, either in person or online.

“I think it will bother people maybe for the next three years, but eventually I think it’s just going to become status quo,” he said. “The next potential uprising might actually be Christmas Day.”


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