Thanksgiving, Bargains, and the Dark Side of Values

Thanksgiving's true meaning is about more than an overflowing cornucopia. It's about groups of people sharing and being thankful for their blessings in life. The first Thanksgiving, lest we forget, involved Pilgrims and Native Americans sharing in a feast, prepared with their joined contributions of a bountiful harvest and successful hunting expeditions.

Today, Thanksgiving has long focused on quiet time sharing meals with families and friends. However, we've increasingly moved toward a state of affairs that has more to do with the accumulation of stuff than simply appreciating what we have.

Sadly, many public companies, investors, and regular American consumers are contributing to the dilution of this holiday.

The good, the bad, and the ugly
Thanksgiving is quickly deteriorating into another excuse for mad shopping gluttony. This trend began with major retailers opening at midnight on Black Friday. It looks like as soon as the tryptophan wears off after Thanksgiving dinner, many shoppers will don their body armor and self-defense tactics to commence fighting for rock-bottom bargains and occasionally even causing human stampedes.

Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT  ) is the usual bogeyman for this type of holiday mayhem, but the truth is, many retailers have shared the blame over the past several years. When it comes to opening stores -- and staffing them -- on Thanksgiving Day, Sears Holdings' (NASDAQ: SHLD  ) Kmart has been a driving force, given the retailer's ongoing struggle to survive.

Speaking of Sears' woes, Yahoo! Finance's Rick Newman expanded on the floundering retailer idea; he provided a great informational chart that segues perfectly into what we could call "Sears Syndrome." Most of the retailers that are opening on Thanksgiving Day are weak.

Take Best Buy (NYSE: BBY  ) , which recently reported scary quarterly tidings that have dashed many investors' hopes for a potential and fantasized turnaround. J.C. Penney (NYSE: JCP  ) , another sick, struggling retail stock, is also among the Thanksgiving grinches; its recent quarterly loss also didn't exactly suggest a turnaround in effect.

Thankfully, some retailers are resisting the temptation, keeping their stores locked and dark on Thanksgiving Day. Costco (NASDAQ: COST  ) is one of them. Its decision is completely in keeping with an important foundation of Costco's business: positive, decent employee treatment. Costco has stood firm against many factors that investors may find perfectly reasonable, like paying fewer benefits to boost profits.

Nordstrom, known for solid practices in areas like customer service -- brand-boosting attributes -- is also closed on Thanksgiving. Investors should think long and hard about the companies that aren't contributing to a nasty race to the bottom, and focus on analyzing and even investing in the ones that are not.

Thanksgiving temptation
Many investors defend the idea that opening on Thanksgiving has become what the market wants. Many Americans have no compunction about flooding into stores once they get bored with sitting around being thankful for things they already have (like family and friends). As the trend spreads over years' time, Thanksgiving will become just another big shopping holiday, much like, say, Presidents Day.

A National Retail Federation survey recently showed one in four people admitting that they will shop on Thanksgiving. This represents 23% of those surveyed. A hard estimate puts the actual number at 33 million people.

Maybe that's very difficult to resist for bargain-hungry Americans and investors who are hankering for immediate sales and profit growth at the expense of a future with a few meaningful, contemplative moments in the year. In addition, we already know that the holiday season is going to be tough for many retailers; surely that results in even more desperate decisions.

Rethinking value and values
Retailers opening on Thanksgiving are among the most dangerous for investors. Desperate companies represent dangerous stocks, not value plays for investors dreaming of a short-term holiday boost by grabbing dollars. Panic ploys should be negative indicators, not positive ones.

Let's try to look at "value" in a different way from what many of us are accustomed to. Sometimes strategies represented by rock-solid values -- like chilling out on Thanksgiving -- are the most effective. The strongest retailers can later make up the lost couple of bucks. Costco is one of my favorite companies because of its reputation for building long-term goodwill.

Companies that keep their values -- and again, spread goodwill, during the holidays and other times -- are simply safer companies. Principles and profits can certainly go hand in hand. Building better, more positive businesses depends on these elements. More and more investors, including myself, believe that customer goodwill, an intangible asset, is one of the most important competitive advantages a company can nurture.

Hopefully, more investors will come around to the idea that rock-bottom bargains and holiday free-for-alls are not only bad for margins, they're also bad for things like morale. (We haven't even touched upon the impact on retailer workers.)

Hopefully, American consumers will realize that if they're shopping on Thanksgiving, their dollars represent a disregard for exactly what makes holidays like Thanksgiving special. Plus, turning Thanksgiving into a consumer free-for-all doesn't even touch on the things that really make people happy. True happiness comes from the heart.

Super-strong holiday shopping stocks
To learn about two retailers with especially good prospects, take a look at The Motley Fool's special free report: "The Death of Wal-Mart: The Real Cash Kings Changing the Face of Retail." In it, you'll see how these two cash kings are able to consistently outperform and how they're planning to ride the waves of retail's changing tide. You can access it by clicking here.

Check back at Fool.com for more of Alyce Lomax's columns on environmental, social, and governance issues.


Read/Post Comments (34) | Recommend This Article (67)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On November 25, 2013, at 8:31 PM, SuntanIronMan wrote:

    It is actually even more messed up than that. We're shopping on Thanksgiving so we can give gifts of expensive consumer electronics on Christmas. So we end up missing the true meaning of TWO holidays.

  • Report this Comment On November 26, 2013, at 5:59 PM, Megatron916 wrote:

    Thanksgiving is hands down my favorite holiday and I'm getting sick of Black Friday taking over what was once, and should remain, a holiday for truly appreciating what we have.

    Thank You.

  • Report this Comment On November 26, 2013, at 7:55 PM, gskinner75006 wrote:

    Looks like the fool is having difficulties with their comments code, but if this makes it through, I have to say, Alyce, this is the second article in a row I have fully agreed with you. Never would have thunk it! Usually I'm looking for my torch and pitchfork half way through... Here's to wishing you and yours a happy and safe Thanksgiving!

  • Report this Comment On November 26, 2013, at 8:15 PM, TMFLomax wrote:

    Thank you all for for the comments, and gskinner75006, that means a lot to me -- maybe we agree on more than it may seem (who'd a thunk it? ;)).

    Happy, safe Thanksgiving to you all as well!

    Alyce

  • Report this Comment On November 27, 2013, at 9:38 AM, pondee619 wrote:

    "many retailers have shared the blame over the past several years"

    STOP blaming the retailers. It isn't their fault. If people didn't shop on Thanksgiving, the retailers would not open, or would stop opening. The fault lies not with the retailers, the fault lies with the American family which, apparently, can no longer spend quality time with each other unless they're spending time and money at the mall. If the American public would stop queing up, if the American family would take this wonderful holiday as family and friend time, as it was designed, if American consumers would stop acting like starving dogs over "perceived" savings, the stores would remain dark on Thanksgiving. But no, the shopers will appear, line up at the door for "busting" savings, and return home like conquering heros. They don't open to MAKE us shop, they open because we WANT to shop. Stop blaming the retailers, it's our own danm fault.

  • Report this Comment On November 27, 2013, at 2:54 PM, FoolInYakima wrote:

    Blame the shoppers not the retailers. if the sales weren't there the stores wouldn't be open.

  • Report this Comment On November 27, 2013, at 4:37 PM, lovepeace wrote:

    Who wouldn't rather shop online? I don't get it.

  • Report this Comment On November 27, 2013, at 5:19 PM, wildeweasel wrote:

    I don't like the commercialization of the holidays so I simple don't participate in it. The one that truly bothers me the most is shopping on Remembrance day in Canada, I find it profoundly sad.

  • Report this Comment On November 27, 2013, at 7:00 PM, todamo13 wrote:

    The idea of going to a stampede at one of those stores and fighting over some meaningless plastic junk with thousands of other people sounds more like a nightmare to me... No thanks!

  • Report this Comment On November 27, 2013, at 7:15 PM, XMFConnor wrote:

    Why are we blaming anyone? Stores with very weak sales are able to get a boost and shoppers are able to get great deals.

    If you don't want to work there, then quit. There are plenty of people unemployed who will likely be willing to take your place (not to mention foreign unemployment.. we are lucky to be in America).

  • Report this Comment On November 27, 2013, at 7:33 PM, jbubert wrote:

    When you think about it, all the companies that are opening earlier and earlier i.e. Walmart, Kmart, BestBuy, Sears, etc. have a customer base that is Lower Economic Class to Middle Class. These are the same people who have seen their wages either frozen or reduced. If they want to celebrate Christmas or whatever holiday they celebrate, they see this as their avenue to purchase goods that they otherwise wouldn't be able to afford. On the other hand stores like Nieman Marcus. Tiffany's, Nordstrom are all doing wonderfully. So don't blame these people for trying to take advantage of the only opportunity to try to provide a holiday experience for their families. If these very same stores paid their employees more than minimum wage, the workers would have more money in their pockets that they would put directly back into the economy. As we all know, the middle class and lower economic class spend virtually everything that they take in. We commercialize everything and then we blame everyone who listens to the message and goes out and buys.

  • Report this Comment On November 27, 2013, at 7:34 PM, TwoFour24 wrote:

    Great article. Thanksgiving is a time to be thankful!! All too often it's the people in the weakest position employment wise who HAVE to work for fear of losing their employment!!

    The Pilgrims would be crying if they saw this behavior...clamoring for a deal on a family holiday.

  • Report this Comment On November 27, 2013, at 8:59 PM, kbeck02 wrote:

    I quit "participating" in the Christmas follies way back in the late 60s/early 70s when I was a starving college student. I would buy Christmas presents and be in debt for 6 months. Most of the time the people I bought gifts for would return them for something else. They all had 2 to 3 times my income. Finally I started wondering the heck I was doing spending money I didn't have, and spending time looking for the perfect gift, that the recipient ended up not wanting anyway.

    Then came the next big question: What is wrong with an economy that exists only because people buy Christmas presents? How many companies would not be in business except for Christmas over shopping? So I ask these questions of the folks at Motley Fool. Someone here should be able to answer that question.

  • Report this Comment On November 27, 2013, at 9:08 PM, protectiveinclus wrote:

    Thanks Alyce! You nailed it! Enjoy the shares, of family and friends, on a priceless Thanksgiving Day.

  • Report this Comment On November 27, 2013, at 10:13 PM, modeltim wrote:

    Black Friday is a manifestation of what Pope Francis rightfully calls our age of unfettered capitalism and the idolatry of money. I have never participated in Black Friday and will not as long as reside on this planet.

  • Report this Comment On November 28, 2013, at 8:07 AM, Keithx13 wrote:

    Nice article Alyce. As someone who was born in the '50s, I have seen a lot of change over the years. Having stores open on Thanksgiving is one of the saddest.

    Oh, as a SA newby, I never heard of the Prosocial Portfolio. I guess I'll go check it out, but not on Thanksgiving. ;)

  • Report this Comment On November 28, 2013, at 9:01 AM, trdyes wrote:

    and don't forget "Hobby Lobby" is closed -- not only on Thanksgiving, but also Closed every SUNDAY! Praise the LORD for a business with a testimony for God!

  • Report this Comment On November 28, 2013, at 9:04 AM, Megatron1 wrote:

    Jbubert,

    You've stated thanksgiving day is the only opportunity for people who have wage freeze or lower income to take advantage of the sales on thanksgiving day and black Friday to provide holiday experience for their family. I don' t know about you, but family time is very important to me and holiday experience isn't all about finding deals and presents. It's not worth sacraficing family time to get a deal on thanksgiving day due to lower income or wage freeze. Spend within your means and set a budget.

    I also agree its not retailers fault for opening on thanksgiving day. If the all the consumer decides to stay hom e and celebrate thanksgiving day with their family, these retail store will get the message and not open on thanksgiving day.

    Just my 2 cents

  • Report this Comment On November 28, 2013, at 9:38 AM, Gorm wrote:

    To me this is like a race to the bottom! Brick and mortar retailing is a dying breed, trying to outplay the competitor for TRAFFIC and hopefully sales on higher margin offers - whereas the consumer is focused on deep discount sale items.

    From my perspective shopping has evolved from downtown retailers, to malls, to online. Given value, free shipping, tax free, no-hassle returns it is tough beating on line.

    Gorm

  • Report this Comment On November 28, 2013, at 10:52 AM, sunrizesurfer wrote:

    It saddens me, but an America divided is now the new norm, and we are divided on many fronts: politically, economically, and moralistically. What makes America great is this ability to be so diverse. Yet, as for my single self, I hold with those that think corporate greed has gone too far when increasing sales rides on the back of the retail workforce who should be home thinking about the true values that matter most: not the god Money, but he family and friends you choose to share with.

    Give the American Worker a break. Black Friday should not spread to Thanksgiving day- for crying-out-loud, you shop-o-halics have Cyber Monday to play around with!

  • Report this Comment On November 28, 2013, at 11:23 AM, bobbyk1 wrote:

    Personally I think the only thing that happens is profit margins for the stores will take a hit.When earnings come out we will hear margins took a hit and sales took a hit because of the weather(too warm or too cold).Add the fact we have a few less sales days in the quarter.I don't own any retail stocks but if I did it would probably be a store that's not open on turkey day.Enjoy youre holiday Fools.

  • Report this Comment On November 28, 2013, at 12:52 PM, Montereyjackson wrote:

    Well done, Alyce Lomax.

    The Fool is among the many things I am thankful today.

  • Report this Comment On November 28, 2013, at 4:25 PM, Chopkoski wrote:

    Well, one gets the usual pontification on the sanctity of whatever, but all-in-all things go on with what makes people happy, (To be real, that is why drug sales stay strong.) This might be a fad, to be remembered in grandparent to grandchildren exchanges, or, it will continue mankind's most favorite occupation...buying and selling of anything.

    As for the spiritual aspect during Thanksgiving...well, even a Norman Rockwell painting of the Thanksgiving meal is analyzed in a recent Smithsonian magazine article as not showing any thanks being given for the meal but simply appreciation for the food. Take a look at the famous painting...anyway, I'm neither worried nor chagrined about modern life.

  • Report this Comment On November 28, 2013, at 9:13 PM, DJDynamicNC wrote:

    The more I hear about Costco, the more I like the company.

  • Report this Comment On November 29, 2013, at 9:18 AM, Samskiman wrote:

    Just more of the same from A. Lomax.

    Now she's trying to connect the dot to build a case that it's bad to invest in some of the best companies out there based on when they do business.

    If the consumer doesn't want to shop on Thanksgiving Day, they won't and none of those stores will be open on Thanksgiving Day. The consumer is the boss. Pretty straight forward.

  • Report this Comment On November 29, 2013, at 9:32 AM, Mathman6577 wrote:

    Looks like Wal-Mart and Target had a good Thanksgiving. 2.8 million towels sold in 4 hours ?

    http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB1000142405270230401720...

  • Report this Comment On November 29, 2013, at 9:35 AM, Mathman6577 wrote:

    Good point Samskiman. The left-wing always like to control your life and what you do. They don't like people (or companies) to think for themselves. Disrupts their whole line of thinking. By the way Wal-mart did 10 million transactions on Thanksgiving.

    http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB1000142405270230401720...

  • Report this Comment On November 29, 2013, at 2:19 PM, crca99 wrote:

    Perhaps a longer time frame is relevant. Value expression changed decades ago.

    I remember Thanksgiving and Christmas before TV and football took over. Cousins played together outdoors. Adults conversed, played lost games like badminton, horseshoes, croquet. We gave thanks without background noise, booze or chips.

    A family hunt for bargains may be just a new twist in our rich/poor divided society.

  • Report this Comment On November 29, 2013, at 3:07 PM, cmalek wrote:

    "The first Thanksgiving, lest we forget, involved Pilgrims and Native Americans sharing in a feast, prepared with their joined contributions of a bountiful harvest and successful hunting expeditions."

    Horse puckey! That is a beautiful myth we have been taught to believe. In reality the Pilgrims harvest sucked because the European plants did not fare well in the New World and the Pilgrims did not yet learn how to properly cultivate New World plants. The Pilgrims couldn't hunt worth a damn. In a word, they were starving. The Native Americans took pity on the Pilgrims and shared their food with them, in effect organizing the first soup kitchen for the indigent in the New World.

    As a few posters have stated, if there was no customers, there would be no Turkey Night or Black Friday sales. You have reversed the cause and effect, Alyce. People are not shopping because the stores are open; the stores are open because people want to shop. It is the shoppers who are eroding the "traditional values", not the stores.

  • Report this Comment On November 30, 2013, at 11:37 AM, Mathman6577 wrote:

    @cmalek: Good point. However, the left-wing has to blame the evil corporations for exploiting the masses. [It's in their DNA. They don't don't like success at any level unless the government created that "success" or "allowed it to happen".] Their convoluted thought process is that certain companies would say: "I'm open. You have to shop here. Screw the holiday." However, the left-wing doesn't really like to celebrate holidays in general. It violates their "freedom of (non) religion" mantra. They routinely shutdown displays celebrating Christmas or Good Friday (or what the politically correct now call "Spring Holiday"). And heaven forbid if we say anything against religions primarily practiced in other countries then we are prejudiced or racist.

  • Report this Comment On November 30, 2013, at 1:10 PM, Montereyjackson wrote:

    True enough: the market dictated what the retailers did; it was the simplest kind of reflexive response. The Valpo Starkbucks was open Thanksgiving too, though one could argue that their "third place" they serve a different need.

    The point I would like to support here is that in business, idealism and pragmatism can be mixed and when they are mixed well, the result is bigger deal than capturing some of Black Friday's revenues a day sooner.

  • Report this Comment On December 02, 2013, at 11:48 AM, dmiles2 wrote:

    @cmalek:

    Actually, the Pilgrims DID starve the first year, but it was more because they tried to implement a commune-style economy and everyone thought everyone else would tend the crops.

    When they made everyone responsible for their own food, they worked at it like their life depended on it (because it did) and they had plenty. The Indians did contribute, but the Pilgrims had also learned that individual responsibility produced a bounty.

    You can read about it in Governor Bradford's account. It's a primary reference.

  • Report this Comment On December 04, 2013, at 2:30 AM, Rowants wrote:

    When I was a kid, most stores closed early on Saturday and were closed Sundays. Of course something would break, and we'd need something from the hardware or auto parts stores, and we'd wish they were open. Now that everything is open all the time, I wish they were closed.....And for what its worth, I wish I could remember where I read an article about how most retailers wished they were closed once in a while. When they went from being open 6 days a week to 7, the number of sales stayed flat, but the overhead costs increased.

  • Report this Comment On December 04, 2013, at 4:09 PM, magari12 wrote:

    I think all Holidays are to share with family and friends.

    I worked at Macys for some years and always I work on every Holiday. I never spend a new year with my family.

    And because that I NEVER SHOP AGAIN IN A HOLIDAY!

    For me, all the stores can go out of business, Family is more important for me than a new cell or tv

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