Can Thanksgiving Be Rescued from the Holiday Shopping Frenzy?

Most Americans think of Thanksgiving Day as a time for their loved ones to get together in perhaps the most spiritually meaningful gathering of the year.  It’s supposed to be a time for sincere reflection on the blessings of life, especially the importance of family togetherness.

Many see Thanksgiving as a healthy counterpoint – and antidote – to the crass consumerism of Christmas.

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But is it, in fact?

Thanksgiving turns out to be the year’s most concentrated day of TV watching, with more than 110 million Americans glued to the tube for 15 hours or more.

And naturally, that’s a unique opportunity for retailers to advertise an enormous range of goods and services, many of them offered at discount prices, usually starting on “Black Friday” but often extending the entire weekend through what’s come to be known as “Cyber Monday.”

The TV-watching starts with New York’s historic Macy’s Parade, a tradition that dates back decades.  All three networks try to cover the event, at least in part, which runs from roughly 9 AM through noon.  Then comes a triple-header of NFL football games, typically one right after the other beginning in the late afternoon and running through the late evening.

And peppered throughout the day are the kinds of heart-warming TV “specials” that one typically associates with Christmas.  In some cases, classics like “Charlie Brown’s Christmas” have been re-fitted to support a more Thanksgiving-oriented theme, which gets the whole family watching, and not just the show, but the endless commercials.

Increasingly, major retailers have seized upon these venues to make large ad buys that have spurred unprecedented sales.

Wal-Mart, for example, has begun advertising Black Friday sales during NFL football games, a break with past company policy.  Best Buy, Amazon and Kohl’s are also advertising their Black Friday offerings, with “one-time-only” 40-50% discounts on electronics, toys, and clothing.

Others joining in the frenzy include and K-Mart, Lowe’s and Office Depot.

It’s not just in-store purchases that are being promoted, though some of the best deals do require consumers to shop in person.  Less picky online consumers can avoid the rush of the crowds and just click their way to attractive discounts if they’re willing to wait for delivery.

Many appear to be choosing that option.  In 2018, American shoppers spent a record $5 billion online on Black Friday, up 18.0% from the year before, according to research by Adobe Analytics.  In-store sales accounted for some $3 billion more, which made the day the year’s most lucrative by far.

These are not niche shoppers.  According to a survey by the National Retail Federation, 66 million Americans shopped on Black Friday alone.  But even more — 174 million or 70% of all US adults – shopped for sales during the entire Thanksgiving weekend, some visiting stores open on Thanksgiving Day while their turkey was still roasting in the oven.

And the numbers are steadily increasing.  In 2014, about 134 million Americans shopped during Thanksgiving and the following year 152 million did.  But in 2016, there was barely any increase at all.   In fact, the largest annual increases have come in 2017 and 2018.  Marketers expect 2019 to be the biggest Thanksgiving sales year ever

Still, there are signs that a consumer backlash of sorts is beginning to set in.

Last month, several polls conducted by local newspapers found that many Americans were opposed to stores being open this year on Thanksgiving Day, and some even felt that “Black Friday” store openings should be cut back, too.

“We need to be able to celebrate Thanksgiving Day for what it truly is and not lump it in with holiday shopping,” said one resident in a survey conducted by the Wisconsin Post-Crescent, part of the USA Today local newspaper network.

Some noted that with so much emphasis on shopping, more people were cutting back on volunteering in soup kitchens and losing their sense of gratitude.

But others said that in tough economic times having stores open throughout the holidays gave workers an opportunity to earn badly-needed income.

The solution?  Increase the number of part-time shifts so that more workers can earn but still enjoy quality time with their families.

Some retailers have struck upon a clever way of joining the anti-Black Friday bandwagon while continuing to promote their brand.

For example, in 2016, REI, which sells recreational clothing and equipment, launched #OptOutside as a reaction to the holiday shopping frenzy.  The chain closed all 143 of its US stores on Black Friday and paid for employees to “do what they love most – be outside”.

The advertising agency which came up with the campaign later won numerous awards for it.  And the use of the new slogan led to greater fan engagement, more interaction on social media and more mainstream media coverage for REI, and of course, more sales, too.

Maybe for one day companies and consumers can agree to exercise a degree of self-restraint.

It sure beats Black Friday becoming the informal kick-off for a non-stop holiday shopping frenzy that leaves everyone spiritually exhausted.

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