Talking turkey about going shopping

Photo of a shopping mallNo matter how many obituaries are written for the shopping mall – no matter how many love letters are penned to the e-tailers of the Internet – millions of Americans are poised to once again defy the conventional wisdom.

With stomachs full of turkey and mashed potatoes – or maybe not – they will trade the comforts of home to camp outside stores with hundreds of strangers during the zero-dark-thirty hours of “Black Friday.”

Behind the glass doors wait the coveted “door-buster” mark-downs and the must-have merchandise that apparently will disappear from shelves long before the final day of Christmas shopping. Those brave (or crazy) enough to take on the mad rush will wind up in endless lines of other bleary-eyed customers.

Some shoppers won’t wait even that long; plenty of stores are attempting to edge the competition by opening the evening of Thanksgiving. Others are dismissing the holiday altogether, wooing eager Santa’s Helpers by maintaining regular Thursday hours.

What’s going on here?

“Shopping on Black Friday is not something I personally do,” says Sarah Cosbey, an associate professor of textiles, apparel and merchandising in the NIU School of Family, Consumer and Nutrition Sciences, “but there are people who really look forward to that day. They don’t mind getting up and going out in the dark, and they get most of their shopping done that day. They can enjoy the Christmas season without having to fight the crowds after that.”

Mark Rosenbaum
Mark Rosenbaum

Mark S. Rosenbaum, the Kohl’s Corp. Professor of Retail Marketing in the NIU College of Business, offers a more complicated and perhaps cynical theory.

American ideals are undergoing a dramatic transition, he says, and stores are just giving the people what they want.

“The narrative of how people celebrate Thanksgiving is changing. Thanksgiving used to be a scripted holiday event. Everyone knew his or her role, and it was very much a role-play of an American tradition,” Rosenbaum says.

“But as families have changed, and time has become such as asset for families, women in the household simply have less time to cook and prepare a meal,” he adds.

“So shopping on Thanksgiving is now becoming the scripted event for many families. The hoopla and excitement of rushing to a mall after a quick dinner is becoming the holiday narrative. Instead of being an event that worships food consumption and family gathering, we’re now seeing marketplace consumption as part of the Thanksgiving tradition.”

Rosenbaum says many of the bargain-hunters are also on a “quest for community” they believe is fulfilled by “the crowds and the excitement of being part of a community clamoring for consumption.”

“Sadly,” he says, “the community that used to exist around the Thanksgiving table is now becoming an imagined community of others at the mall.”

And while Black Friday is historically the day when retailers move from loss to profitability – from “the red” to “the black,” and hence its name – last year was the first that “Cyber Monday” and its back-at-the-office-with-Internet-access purchases overtook Black Friday in terms of sales.

This year, Rosenbaum says, Cyber Monday will similarly dwarf “Black Thursday.”

Sarah Cosbey
Sarah Cosbey

If that sounds impossible, given the ever-earlier store openings and the mobs at the malls, Rosenbaum posits that many of those shoppers are merely “part of a consumption community and not necessarily purchasing.”

Wait a minute – waking up in the middle of the night, standing outside in the cold before the doors open, elbowing through the human traffic and then going home empty-handed?

“Nobody said that consumer behavior is rational,” Rosenbaum says, “and you can quote me on that.”

And what about those stores taking the “high road,” refusing to snatch their employees away from family celebrations? “There is more pressure on companies to respect the work-life balance,” Cosbey says, “and these companies might be taking that to heart.”

CEOs are eager to publicize this, of course, as if a store choosing to remain closed on an American holiday is newsworthy, but are their motives that pure?

Don’t make Rosenbaum laugh.

“Many of these retailers simply have not built up a staff of temporary employees, and they have employees working extra hours Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” he says. “They have no choice but to close.”

That’s not to say the cash registers – real and virtual – won’t ring again and again and again during the next six weeks.

Photo of a credit card with a bow“Christmas 2014 is being impacted by decreased oil prices, and that is a blessing in disguise for retailers in the fourth quarter. Americans are feeling wealthier simply because they have more money in their pockets,” he says.

“And when we talk about Black Thursday and Cyber Monday, we’re talking about deals and special price breaks. When people talk about how great the economy is, it’s still an economy where people are clamoring for value. I don’t think much is going to be sold at full price, other than luxury items.”

Rosenbaum, who “grew up at Chernin’s Shoes in Chicago” and later worked as a sales associate at Saks Fifth Avenue, remembers that Black Fridays in the 1980s and ’90s were indeed “shopping events” but without the discounts.

“It wasn’t about value-seeking,” he says. “It was about gift-giving.”

So what changed? “Big-box retailing and the sheer competiveness of Internet retailing,” he says. “Internet retailing has taught Americans that the original price is not the final price.”

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