Thanksgiving is transforming into a messy battleground that's pitting employees' right for a day off with their employers' desire for holiday sales.
The national holiday was once sacrosanct, the type of holiday when all stores were shuttered tight. If you wanted to pick up a can of forgotten cranberry sauce, chances were that you were out of luck. But in recent years, retailers ranging from groceries to department stores are opening their doors on Thanksgiving, with many kick-starting their Black Friday sales on Thursday.
Some retailers, including Costco (COST) and Nordstrom, are pushing back on the holiday creep, taking the high moral ground that their employees deserve the day off. That's winning some fans, although they are likely losing out on millions of dollars of spending that will go to rivals such as Macy's (M) and Walmart (WMT), which are opening on Thanksgiving day.
"It's safe to say that most customers feel a little sympathy for the employees who have to work on Thanksgiving, even though they may love getting those discounts on a big screen TV," notes Scott Dobroski, community expert at employment site Glassdoor. Whether to open on the holiday is "definitely a business decision. Companies are looking at their bottom line, and analyzing how much they can make, and what are the costs to being open that day, and they do take into effect how this impacts employees."
Aside from Costco and Nordstrom, some of the retailers who have announced they will remain shut on Thanksgiving include American Girl; Barnes & Noble (BKS); Crate & Barrel; Dillard's; GameStop (GME); Hobby Lobby; Home Depot (HD); Jo Ann Fabrics; Lowe's (LOW); Nieman Marcus; Petco; Pier 1; TJX (TJX) and REI.
Across all industries, about 44 percent said they would most like their employers not required them to work on Thanksgiving, Glassdoor found in a 2013 survey. That percentage would likely be higher among retail-only employees, Dobroski added.
The battle comes at a time when low-wage industries such as retailing and fast-food restaurants are coming under fire for their treatment of employees. Aside from pressure from labor organizers and their own workers to raise wages, such industries are also facing criticism for their scheduling demands.
Many retailers increasingly use automated software to set workers' hours, giving them piecemeal schedules that make it difficult to plan ahead or handle childcare. Starbucks (SBUX), for one, recently said it would change the way it handles scheduling for its 130,000 baristas after The New York Times highlighted the struggles of one employee to cope with her erratic hours.
By contrast, there's a strong pro-employee message coming from retailers pledging to keep their doors shut on Thanksgiving. TJX, which operates stores including T.J. Maxx and Marshalls, said it won't open on the holiday because "we consider ourselves an associate-friendly company."
"We are pleased to give our associates the time to enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday with family and friends," a TJX spokeswoman said.
On the other hand, stores that are opening on Thanksgiving vow that their employees actually enjoy the chance to work on the holiday. Macy's, which will open on 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving, told CBS MoneyWatch last month that many workers "appreciated the opportunity to work on Thanksgiving so they could have time off on Black Friday." Workers are also typically compensated with incentive pay for working on the holiday.
A number of retailers are resisting the holiday creep, keeping Black Friday the "official" first day of the holiday shopping season. Black Friday earned its name because the Friday after Thanksgiving often tipped retailers into the black for the year.
The decision may be a tough one for some retailers, given a mixed year so far for sales. While the unemployment rate is declining, wages have remained stagnant, which some analysts point to as a reason why retailers such as Walmart have struggled with lackluster demand.
If the economy gets stronger by next Thanksgiving, Dobroski notes, more retailers may decide to remain shut on the holiday.