A single note strums as TJMaxx’s latest holiday commercial fades into view, opening to scenes of a family unloading stacks of brightly wrapped gifts from their car. "Imagine a world where the holidays were about people again," a cozy female voice hums over the video, her warm inflection matching the hugs playing out across the screen. "Where doorbusters referred to loved ones pouring through the front door. And the four-letter word that defined the season was L-O-V-E and not S-A-L-E."
It doesn’t stop there. "What if the only reason to wake up at 3am was to spot a reindeer in the sky, and coupons were only used to redeem one... more... kiss." (Cut to thin, attractive, white couple in their late twenties cuddling by a Christmas tree.) And then, to hammer it all the way home: "That’s the world TJMaxx, Marshalls, and Home Goods stores live in."
The commercial implies that TJMaxx, a discount clothing retailer that markets specifically to a value-driven shopper, would rather its customers ignore all those S-A-L-E-S and stay home cuddling on a couch in front of a fire. It’s clearly proud of its decision to not open any of its stores on Thanksgiving, and it’s willing to shame companies who do. Outdoor retailer REI went even further this year to say that not only was it not opening its doors on Thanksgiving (as always) but it wasn’t even going to let people in its stores on Black Friday.
According to the National Retail Federation, the shopping holiday is evolving more this year than ever before. The number of shoppers over Thanksgiving weekend (November 26th to November 29th) is actually expected to increase to 135.8 million this year, up from 133.7 million shoppers in 2014. But while Black Friday may traditionally be the most notable day of the holiday shopping season, fewer people are waiting until that last week of November to start holiday shopping.
The numbers in multiple NRF holiday polls show that retailers are trying to reach a customer who spends more than ever before, is buying online more than ever before, and starts shopping earlier than ever before. It’s a hard customer to nail down, and the wide range in promotional strategy this year — from Target’s ten days of deals leading up to Black Friday to REI’s refusal to open its doors at all — is proof that everybody has got their own, wildly different idea on how to reach shoppers this year.
"This morning I got an email from Walmart at 2:35, and I got the same email at 5:56," Melissa Martin, a spokesperson for BlackFriday.com, a site that compiles yearly Black Friday ads for over 30 million users, tells me. "They’re still all trying to figure this out. I have never been inundated with so many emails from retailers. I’ll wake up in the morning and have over a hundred emails from retailers telling me what they have on sale that day."
Walmart plans to open its doors for Black Friday at 6pm on Thanksgiving, while online deals will start rolling out at 12:01am Thanksgiving morning. Old Navy will open at 4pm on Thanksgiving and stay open for 32 consecutive hours. Target plans on opening its stores at 6pm on Thanksgiving, although Black Friday deals will begin on November 22. Macy’s will also open at 6pm on Thanksgiving, and JCPenney announced its earliest start time ever: 3pm on Thanksgiving. In contrast, retailers including REI, TJMaxx, Nordstrom, and H&M all plan to stay closed on Thanksgiving and, in REI’s case, on Black Friday as well.
It seems like a great divide, but in every case, retailers are simply trying to market to their target customer. "[REI] doesn’t do a tremendous amount of business during Black Friday," Martin explains. "They have a lot of stores open and a lot of employees, but that is not their best time. They’re still offering online shopping, and their customers are probably ones who do a lot of online shopping. REI did what they did because it was the best business and marketing plan for them."
H&M sent out a press release in mid-November announcing that, "for the first time," the retailer will close all US stores on Thanksgiving Day, "to give store employees the opportunity to spend the holiday with friends and family." But H&M has never forced its stores to stay open on the holiday in the past. "Each H&M store has determined its own Thanksgiving day schedule, based on location and market," a spokesperson said over email.
Similarly, TJMaxx’s decision to stay closed on Thanksgiving is not new. While it’s not clear if the retailer has ever been open for the holiday ("That’s a great question that would take me awhile to hunt down," a spokesperson said over email), TJMaxx has stayed closed on Thanksgiving for at least the past several years.
Nordstrom has never been open on Thanksgiving; traditionally, the retailer uses the day off to re-decorate the stores for the holiday season. Retail news site Consumerist published a post two weeks ago titled "Please Stop Sharing This Photo of a Nordstrom Anti-Christmas Creep Poster" after ABC News and Fox affiliate sites started posting articles about Nordstrom’s holiday policy as if it was new news.
"Over the years it’s been our tradition close our stores on Thanksgiving so we can unveil our holiday decorations on Friday morning," Nordstrom PR director Dan Evans says in an email. "Of course customers who do want to shop with us on Thanksgiving are able to do so online. We’ll always listen to the needs of our customers and evolve based on how they want to shop – at this time we have no plans to change our approach."
In the same way, the retailers that have announced plans to open on Thanksgiving are doing so because they, too, are listening to their customers. "It’s easy to picture a family of 12-20 people sitting around a table on Thanksgiving and enjoying pumpkin pie and turkey, however, that is not the situation for every American household," NRF spokesperson Kathy Grannis Allen tells me. "In fact, 43 million people said that they shopped online and in stores on Thanksgiving last year. That’s an extremely large number of people who actually enjoy the idea of maybe sleeping in on Black Friday and going out on Thanksgiving night. If you’re a retailer who caters to that kind of shopper then you’d be crazy to not give them what they want."
For the retailers that do open on Thanksgiving, they were careful to specify that employees are given extra attention on that day. Macy’s, JCPenney, and Target have all confirmed that they fill Thanksgiving shifts on a volunteer basis when possible and pay overtime to employees who are scheduled to work over the holiday. "Our principal goal is to serve our customer when and how she wants to shop, and our extended hours are always in the interest of courtesy and convenience for customers," a Macy’s spokesperson said over email. "We understand and respect the impact on our associates, and we began our staffing planning early to allow associates to review available shifts throughout the holiday season, including on Thanksgiving weekend, and to volunteer for those shifts they prefer."
That extends to warehouse workers on Thanksgiving day as well, at most places. JCPenney, Macy's, and Target confirmed that everyone working the holiday receives overtime pay and they try to fill shifts with volunteers when they can. An REI spokesperson confirmed that the retailer wouldn’t be processing online orders until after Black Friday, and TJMaxx and H&M both confirmed that their warehouses would be closed along with their stores on Thanksgiving. Nordstrom closes its fulfillment centers, but will keep its customer service center open over the holiday. "We work hard to make sure we staff our contact centers with an appropriate number of employees and try hard minimize the impact for families," Evans says.
Consumer surveys also point to the idea that there’s no one right answer for how retailers should treat Black Friday. Online sale aggregator RetailMeNot released a survey in the first week of November that showed only 10% of the 1,028 adults surveyed believe that Black Friday savings are worth the wait, but 93% of respondents are planning on shopping over the length of the holiday season. Two weeks later, RetailMeNot sent out another survey that said 55% of shoppers are still planning to shop on Black Friday, even though most people started on their lists earlier in the year. One in five consumers plan to shop on Thanksgiving day.
"If there’s one thing we can learn about the importance of Black Friday is that it’s really not one size fits all," Allen says. "The decision [to close] makes a lot of sense for a company like REI. They’ve evaluated their customers and they know their customers better than anyone. But if you look at other retailers who have already announced significant promotions for that day, it’s quite evident that that weekend and Black Friday itself are still really important."