Retailers are caught between a rock and a hard place. If they open for business on Thanksgiving Day, they pull sales from Black Friday and risk alienating employees and maybe even consumers who dislike how Christmas creep advances further each year. But if they don't open their doors, they potentially lose sales to competitors who do.
J.C. Penney (NYSE:JCP) is opening on Thanksgiving at 3 p.m. this year, two hours earlier than it did last year, even though Macy's (NYSE:M) and Kohl's (NYSE:KSS) will still open at 6 p.m. Deep discount store Dollar General (NYSE:DG) is going even further, opening up at 7 a.m. while Sears Holdings' (NASDAQ:SHLD) Kmart chain will unlock its doors at 6 a.m. even though its doorbuster sales don't start until 7 p.m. that night.
And, of course, Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) will be open 24 hours a day just as it always is (except on Christmas), though its in-store sales don't kick off until 6 p.m. Thanksgiving Day and you can get them online starting at midnight. The retailer also launched the earliest start to Christmas shopping by initiating its layaway program a full four months ahead of time.
Although retailers hope to generate additional sales by opening on the holiday, most have found all they've done is pulled sales forward. Where Wal-Mart reported it had more than 22 million shoppers visit its stores on Thanksgiving last year, the same as it reported the year before, all the overall trend has done is minimize the importance of Black Friday. Last year Super Saturday -- the last Saturday before Christmas -- unseated the once king of holiday shopping days as the biggest sales day of the year.
And it comes at a cost. J.C. Penney CEO Marvin Ellison recently stressed the importance of making "sure that we win the Thanksgiving weekend," but it's also paying employees double-time for those that work. Other retailers are also reportedly paying "bounties" to employees who work the holiday. All for the benefit of essentially running in place.
It's easy to find posts by employees across social media bemoaning having to work the holiday, but the potential for a backlash among consumers is growing, too. Surveys conducted by numerous marketing firms find anywhere from half to two-thirds of consumers have a negative impression of the trend. The folks at Retale said 46% either "hated" stores opening on Thanksgiving, or at least found it "annoying," (54% of the 1,000 adults surveyed said they had no intention of shopping in a store on Thanksgiving Day); while RichRelavance found 64% hated or disliked it, while less than 13% say they liked or loved it (61% of respondents in that survey said they would not shop on Black Friday if they shopped in the store on Thanksgiving Day).
Some retailers have noticed the growing hostility and chosen to go in the other direction. Costco, Home Depot, and Nordstrom have always been closed on the holiday and will remain so this year, but others such as Staples and H&M have had a change of heart and announced they will remain closed this year. Outdoor store REI is going even further by saying it's going to be closed on Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday.
It may be we've reached a tipping point for consumer tolerance for holiday creep. It was bad enough when stores decorated for Christmas before Halloween, but with the novelty of shopping on Thanksgiving having dissipated (and obviated even as deals are available online before the holiday itself), those retailers that continue to push the envelop on customer goodwill may find the well empty when they return.
There's nothing to suggest J.C. Penney or Wal-Mart will be targeted for a consumer backlash this year because of their sales practices, but these types of things have a way of building up until they explode on a retailer in a conflagration of falling sales. The important Christmas season is not the time for that ticking time bomb to go off.
The industry is running into the law of diminishing returns when it comes to pushing Christmas consumerism, and perhaps those retailers that refuse to participate may be the ones that ultimately win weekend and the holiday.
Rich Duprey owns shares of J.C. Penney Company,. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon.com and Costco Wholesale. The Motley Fool recommends Home Depot and Nordstrom. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.