“Black Thursday:” A Few Myths Dispelled by an Insider

I have pledged to boycott shopping on the holiday in support of exploited workers, but I would never be able to write about it as my friend has. Please read this thoughtful piece written from a place of experience and love for the retail industry before deciding whether or not to shop tomorrow.

“I’m going to catch a lot of hell for this, and according to one peer, should not be participating in this conversation because of the position I hold in my field (which will no further be discussed). I happen to be a person who has seen the inside of retail, lived many holidays through retail (survived them), and I’m going to dispel a few myths for you.

We don’t live in the same world we did 15 years ago, or ten, or even five. I started in retail about 10 years ago. My first “big retail holiday season” was an eye opener. As “the new guy,” I was the poor soul forced to watch the District Sales Manager’s dog while she went on a ski trip to forget about her recent divorce. I saw that dog destroy every Lego set her son had built for a year, then followed for three days watching for Legos in the poop! When she got back, after having left me with access to her home, car, everything, she went to write me a check. She looked up, and said, “What’s your name?” My first $25 earned from a “middle manager.” These types of requests, with minimal pay off, except working your way into someone higher up’s good graces were not uncommon then. House sitting, and pet sitting are a very common sidebar in retail, and generally pay better than $7/day.

Even back then, we were not open on holidays, nor did we expect to be. I have since learned (very recently) that most leases for larger corporations, within shopping centers specifically state that you’re not required to open on holidays, and will not be penalized for remaining closed. With this in mind, shopping centers will frequently deliver notices to stores stating “required holiday hours, per your lease agreement.” If someone at the field level inquires about these specifics, no information can be shared. The information is only available to corporate offices, and more specifically the real estate and legal departments. So a lot of stores, and even field management assume they must open for extended hours, to avoid racking up threatened fines, and facing “the wrath” of their employer. These shopping centers can then inflate their traffic numbers to share with companies during the renegotiation of leases. I.E.: Business is booming, look at how many footsteps we had on Thanksgiving, when you assumed people would stay home with their families. Do you want to miss out on all that potential business?!

So, the stores open, most lose money just paying hourly wages & the cost of electricity.

Which brings us to pay. There seem to be a lot of people taking about all of the “holiday pay” people will be making for working these new holiday hours. Who are they? And where do they work? Since the economy took a downward turn @2008, most retailers have eliminated full time sales positions, and scaled back full time management positions, primarily to avoid paying benefits such as insurance, vacation, and guess what else: HOLIDAY PAY! It is assumed that Holiday Pay just happens, because the “average American,” working their 9-5, Monday through Friday, gets an extra day off, with pay during a holiday week. Well, in retail there are two extra days, and approximately 40 more operating hours (and pushing upwards of 60 more hours during “peak season”) for a retail employee to make up that time. If you are fortunate enough to land one of the scarce full time positions, you probably do get paid for 8 hours of Holiday Pay, and are sometimes given the option of only working 4 days…….UNLESS……..”the needs of the business require otherwise.” And they almost always require otherwise, because of all those extra operating hours, and the lack of full time people to cover the necessary shifts. So, technically full time employees work 40 hours, and get paid for 48, no overtime, no time and a half for working the actual holiday. 8 additional hours at your regular rate of pay.

Then I hear of companies who are providing “a holiday meal” for employees who work these holiday shifts. I wonder where they hide that restaurant capacity, commercial grade kitchen in a department store. And while I’m picturing it, which of those employees is being paid “holiday pay” to compensate for their amazing culinary skills, and ability to prepare these meals. Guess what, every fast food company is peddling their Black Friday specials to every retail manager in a ten mile radius, trying to convince them to spend the sad, sad stipend which companies will have a manager pay out of a cash register, at their “fine establishment” (and generally for a delivery fee comparable to the total amount allotted to feed the staff). Last year I ordered a bagel box from a very well known “bakery” chain. It totaled @$14 with tax. “Would you like that delivered.” Me: Sure! How much is the delivery fee. $15. Mind you, this storefront is approximately 200 yards from the delivery location. Everyone is working an angle.

So, as for the Holiday Dinner provided, do you remember when you had a special event in elementary school, or got rewarded for doing something you didn’t have a choice to opt out of anyway? That’s right boys and girls: ITS PIZZA PARTY TIME! This becomes more interesting when you explain it to a group over the 65-70 year range (did you know that Pizza Parties haven’t always been a substitute for the holidays our forefathers created? SCHOCKING!) And it becomes more difficult to organize a pizza party these days, why do you think schools don’t do it anymore? Have you ever tried to order a pizza with half gluten free crust, and come up with at least three vegetarian options that don’t include pineapple, or a specific type of olive?! Nearly impossible for the “average” Pizza Hut customer.

So, bring an apple, or something to snack on.

Now to the consumer side, and part of this is a revelation I just made this year……because no one is writing books on this (until this post).

I read one article bragging about how KMart has been opening on Thanksgiving for 20 years, or so. Is this the same retail chain that had all those financial problems brought on by years of mismanagement, who had to be bought out by Sears, who no one was shopping anymore anyway? Couldn’t be! SHOCKER: they’ll continue to open earlier and earlier, while their employees enjoy that pretty picture of the Pizza Party we viewed earlier, on a 15 minute break…….UNLESS……..”the needs of the business require otherwise.” So don’t be cruel to the KMart employee with pizza stuck in their teeth, they still haven’t had a chance to use the restroom after all the coffe, or energy drinks they consumed to get moving that early in the day, so they couldn’t have had time to check their teeth in the mirror.

We’re going to kick it up one level and take a look at what I must clarify is strictly, my personal, outsider opinion, of an American Tradition, Macy’s. This is the part that just occurred to me this year. For decades people (marketing directors/ Mad Men style Ad Men) have assumed that the staunch family values of the stereotypical Midwesterner, would leave them with no desire to leave their families on a holiday to “save a buck,” (which, by the way, you’re not…..unless you’re waiting for that one magic television, or gaming console, a majority of retailers have already started the sales they’ll push Thursday-Saturday…..they actually started last week, too bad nobody put that in the newspaper). But with a dwindling middle class, and a lower class struggling to make ends meet outside of holidays, these ad wizards have figured it out. They’re onto you.

These guys are nobody’s fools. Have you never seen a Thanksgiving Day Parade?! Or a little movie about Margaret, and the miracle which just happened to occur near one of the most famous retail addresses in the history of retail AND popular culture? If you haven’t seen Miracle on 34th Street, then you don’t know anything about product placement. Or the ability of a major corporation to guilt you into buying their wares, whatever they may be.

The Midwest and Bible Belt is full of believers, and those who want to be believers (this is NOT a religious statement). Simply put, we want to believe in the good. Root for the underdog (that’s why, I presume the Royals survived in Kansas City for so long, regardless of how miserable it was, but I digress) We want to see the good guy win the girl, and know that the nice guy doesn’t always finish last.

Well, in that well known holiday classic, little Margaret is a non-believer……that doesn’t really work for Macy’s. They need Margaret to believe. Believe in Christmas. Believe in Santa. Believe in the Holiday Spirit. And believe in Macy’s. And in the end, when Margaret truly believes, who wins? Everyone is happy, and Christmas is saved, and ALL of those Manhattan residents are FLOCKING to Macy’s!

It’s a public relations wet dream!

What do we see in retail right now? Bargain stores & big box retailers appealing to the “average american,” which recent study shows falls into a lower income bracket, either lower-middle class, or lower class America. Retailers are telling you how much you’ll save, and how much more your families will get for your holiday dollar if you come to their store on Thanksgiving Day.

You don’t see this at the opposite end of the spectrum. Has anyone seen any hot deals at Nordstrom, Sak’s, or NiemanMarcus? No, probably not. Their customers will still spend millions with them this holiday season, and you won’t hear any stories about fisticuffs, or weapons being drawn over furbies at these stores either (unless somebody asks for a new cookie recipe, and we all know how that turned out anyway).

So, it’s too late for me to not come off as jaded, or Scrooge-ish, or just a plain ass, but my intent is quite the opposite. As much as I may bitch about my family, and all the stupid stuff they do year round, I look forward to spending the holidays with my parents, siblings, even their kids. And I don’t want to see my friends, and the rest of the free world to lose sight of that.

So don’t do it Margarets! Don’t BELIEVE this time. You’re not going to come out on top. The retailers will! It’s just like Vegas, the house always wins (TRUST ME on this one) they wouldn’t have stuck around so long if they weren’t!

Keep your holiday time for your families, it will mean much more to you in the future, and shopping on Thanksgiving (combined with the way all of us American eat anyway) will only put you that much closer to a stroke/heart attack/need for blood pressure medication.

And no offense to any of the retailers mentioned. I honestly think their marketing departments need an extra raise for pulling all of this off. After all, they deserve a shot at making it that much closer to the ever popular “one percent” so they can do their shopping with a personal shopper at Nieman’s without the rest of the country in their way, right?

HAPPY THANKSGIVING to all the Margaret’s, big, and small, all across the country!”

by Craig Brown

Enjoy your holiday, however you choose to spend it.

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