Retailers say customer is always right, so doors open on holiday

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The forces that will clash across America this Thanksgiving are bigger than the open shop doors that have become the symbol of the battle.

An online petition has drawn more than 300,000 signatures pleading with Target not to open its stores on the national holiday. Wal-Mart is battling efforts by workers to use Black Friday to draw attention to its policies -- including opening on Thursday. And columns and editorials have been written condemning Thanksgiving sales.

Against that tide a steady stream of retailers have announced they'll be doing business for at least a few hours on Thanksgiving. Those with locations in the Pittsburgh market range from Target and Wal-Mart to Toys 'R' Us, Gabriel Brothers, Sears, hhgregg, Gander Mountain, Michael's and Kmart. Tanger Outlets in South Strabane will be opening at 10 p.m. Thursday.

Another raft of store and mall openings will come at midnight, steering clear of the turkey dinner, but not by a whole lot.

"From their perspective, they're giving the customers what the customers want," said David N. Laband, chairman of the School of Economics at Georgia Tech.

Last year 24 percent of Black Friday shoppers were in the stores by midnight, according to the National Retail Federation. "That's not a small chunk," pointed out Kathy Grannis, spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C., trade group. "That's definitely an amount of people that retailers can't ignore."

Another retail group, the New York-based International Council of Shopping Centers working with Goldman Sachs, projects 41 million people will be out shopping on Thanksgiving.

The tug and pull over when stores should be doing business has been around for centuries, said Mr. Laband.

And he means centuries.

In the year 321, the Emperor Constantine approved an edict that said, "Let all judges and all city people and all tradesmen rest upon the venerable day of the sun," according to a 1987 book on the history of blue laws that Mr. Laband co-authored.

"Really the issue was just a day of rest," said Mr. Laband in an interview this week.

In the U.S., laws passed by state and local governments often have restricted what could be sold on Sunday, at least until the last few decades. The so-called blue laws apparently were named for the color of paper they once were printed on.

While there were often religious influences in choosing when to restrict sales -- something that might not have helped faiths that held services on, say, Friday or Saturday -- one of the goals was to protect small business proprietors, said Mr. Laband. Unlike a big retail emporium or chain, small business operators often don't have big staffs to split up the schedule so everyone gets some free time.

"If they had to compete seven days a week with everybody else, then that means they never get a day off, In a pure free market economy, that is what happens."

Mr. Laband, who isn't inclined to pick sides in the battle over retail hours, noted that over the past several decades many laws have been changed and now people shop on Sundays with barely any memory of the days when that was illegal.

He said it is likely that the large-scale entry of women into the workplace since the 1970s helped to change the laws. "It's a big demographic trend that had consequences," he said. Until then, most households had someone available to shop during the work week. Now, many families have to fit in the grocery shopping and other chores around the various jobs that help pay for those goods.

"The shoppers have made it very clear they want to shop on Sundays," he said.

He said economic downturns also have caused local and state governments, which are in need of revenue, to take a second look at blue laws.

Still, the question remains: Do Americans need to shop on Thanksgiving?

Mr. Laband likes to pose this question at such debates: "Why is it that we really have to use the strong arm of the power of government to enforce behavior?"

Clearly, some segment of the population wants to shop on Thanksgiving. And bricks-and-mortar stores are now competing with online retail options that are open 24 hours a day.

"There's this sort of relentless market pressure telling everybody that people want to be able to shop on Sunday or at midnight," Mr. Laband noted.

Just as economic downturns can erode governments' commitments to restrictions on store hours, the Great Recession also may have helped erode the industry's hesitation about store openings on Thanksgiving -- although it's not hard to find some stores that have been open that day for years.

"This started as a beta test for many retailers, as a direct result of the economy," said Ms. Grannis. "When this started in 2009, it was really just a way for companies to get their brand out there and do something different."

Not all retailers believe their customers want those kind of hours, she said. Stores such as J.C. Penney and Nordstrom present their decisions to open Black Friday morning as a more sane alternative.

Generally, Ms. Grannis said, those kinds of decisions also make business sense.

"That's because the retailer knows what their shopper wants," she said.

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Teresa F. Lindeman: tlindeman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2018.


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