Mega sales on the Friday after Thanksgiving have been around for decades. There is, in fact, a whole website devoted to Black Friday that explains the concept:
"The term 'Black Friday' was coined in the 1960s to mark the kickoff to the Christmas shopping season. 'Black' refers to stores moving from the 'red' to the 'black,' back when accounting records were kept by hand, and red ink indicated a loss, and black a profit."
Years ago, retailers started opening their stores earlier and earlier on Black Friday, and millions of Americans took the bait, getting up in the bleary pre-dawn hours to stand in long lines, shivering in the cold.
Some even camped overnight. They did it because they could sometimes save a few hundred dollars on a big purchase like a television or a computer or a game system.
In the last few years, some retailers pushed their openings to midnight so that it wasn't about getting up early, but about fighting the effects of the Tryptophan in the turkey to stay up late on Thanksgiving night.
This year, Walmart and Sears — and likely others — will be offering deals starting at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day.
The criticism is easy to anticipate: Families should be spending Thanksgiving together instead of worrying about getting to stores for a deal, and retailers shouldn't be forcing their employees to work on a holiday that used to be sacrosanct. It's also a class issue: The rich won't be queuing up for the $180 40-inch high-definition television, while those who live paycheck to paycheck might not be able to pass up the chance.
But there's another side to it. H.W. Brands, a professor and author who wrote American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900, spoke in a recent radio interview about the differences between democracy and capitalism. If we believe in both, he said, we have to accept that they sometimes clash.
Democracy, Brands said, works on the presumption that everyone is equal. Each citizen's vote, theoretically at least, carries the same weight. But capitalism thrives on competition. It rewards — sometimes disproportionately — those who figure out how to get the consumer's dollars in their pocket instead of the other guy's. So if retailers feel the need to pay employees to work on Thanksgiving Day and offer heavy discounts on merchandise, we can assume it's because they think they'll make some extra money that way — even at the expense of aggravating the public.
All the power isn't with the stores, though. Consumers can decide whether or not they want to support a move that seems to lead inevitably to mega sales that coincide with the Macy's Day Parade on Thanksgiving morning. If you don't think Walmart should be opening on Thanksgiving night, don't shop there.
A recent Wall Street Journal article said Black Friday deals are often more myth than reality anyway. "It turns out that gifts from Barbie dolls to watches to blenders are often priced below Black Friday levels at various times throughout the year, even during the holiday season, and their prices follow different trajectories as the remaining shopping days tick down," according to the Journal. Sometimes retailers even build up prices in the months leading up to the holidays, just so they can knock them down, the Journal said.
Here's another angle to consider: Some consumers may be more than ready to get out of the house on Thanksgiving night. Not everyone has an idyllic setting in which to spend Thanksgiving, and it tends to be a big night at movie theaters for those who don't like football, so shopping might be another alternative. With the early openings, some consumers will get their "bargains" without losing out on a night's sleep.
But if you don't want to spend Thanksgiving Day in a line at Best Buy waiting for their midnight opening, don't do it. If enough consumers stay away, the stores will stop the Thanksgiving Day creep. That's how capitalism works.