21 Nov 2012
The End of Thanksgiving As We Know It?
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Thanksgiving used to mean turkey, family, football, and a quiet day at home. With the coming of Black Friday—and Black Thursday this year—in millions of American households it has become a prelude to a shopping spree intent on buying bargains for Christmas. Professor Nancy F. Koehn, a Harvard Business School historian, comments.

Nancy F. Koehn, James E. Robison Professor of Business Administration

Black Friday used to be the extra dessert after Thanksgiving, a day for consumers to stretch their shopping muscles for Christmas. But some Americans believe retailers have crossed the line this year. “Christmas creep” has moved all the way up to the door of what has been a sacrosanct American holiday since 1863.

For the last decade, retailers, keen to spur holiday spending, have moved the starting line forward for this consumer sport, luring shoppers to get up earlier and earlier on Black Friday or, in recent years, to leave their homes on Thanksgiving day itself by offering deals on limited supplies of high–visibility products such as must–have toys and the hottest consumer electronics. Grab your credit card and once more into the shopping breach.

The National Retail Federation (NRF), the leading trade organization, expects up to 147 million Americans to visit stores this weekend, with almost half this number saying they will definitely shop and the remaining 76 million say they will wait to see what merchants have on offer for the three full days after Thanksgiving. Overall, the NRF estimates 2012 holiday sales, which now include auto parts and accessories as well as online sales, will climb 4.1 percent to $586 billion, a rate of increase lower than that in 2011 when holiday sales climbed 5.6 percent over those the preceding year.

Buffeted by competition from online sellers, volatile consumer confidence, razor-thin margins resulting from continual markdowns, and an on-again, off–again economic recovery, brick–and–mortar retailers have grown more and more nimble trying to reel in consumers.

Gone are the days when shoppers pored through newspaper ads the day after Thanksgiving and then planned their trip to the mall. In their place is the emergence of what retail experts see as an ongoing dialogue between consumers and merchants in which retailers offer all kinds of possibilities, often via the Internet and smartphones, gauge household response, and then adjust their initiatives accordingly. Shopping has become a kind of interactive dating game, in which consumers’ growing ability (and confidence) to hunt and gather bargains is matched only by retailers' ability to keep extending such possibilities while still eking out a profit. It is a serious, often exhausting, endeavor.

And this year, the great game of holiday buying and selling has added another dimension. At Walmart, Target, and other stores, some employees are protesting having to work on Thanksgiving. Change.org, a for-profit change advocate, claims to have collected more than 360,000 signatures of disgruntled Target employees opposing the store's Thanksgiving hours. Less obvious are the conversations millions of Americans are having about the meaning of a traditionally important and restful holiday.

No doubt there will be hardy souls pouring into Sears, Toys R’ Us, and other stores when the doors open Thanksgiving evening. But some Americans may be turned off by the specter of "Black Thursday." Certainly, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, home to the nation's first Thanksgiving in 1621, many are glad that Colonial-era blue laws prohibit retailers from plying their wares. As William Wrestling Brewster, whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower and took part in the first Thanksgiving celebration, told the New York Times, this holiday “is supposed to be about giving thanks for all you have. I cringe to think what society is doing to itself” in letting commerce invade what used to be one of our least transactional holidays. So much for peace and quiet.

About Harvard Business School

Founded in 1908 as part of Harvard University, Harvard Business School is located on a 40-acre campus in Boston. Its faculty of more than 200 offers full-time​ programs leading to the MBA and doctoral degrees, as well as more than 80 open enrollment Executive Education programs and more than 60 custom programs. For more than a century, HBS faculty have drawn on their research, their experience in working with organizations worldwide, and their passion for teaching to educate leaders who have shaped the practice of business and entrepreneurship around the globe.​​​​