Retailers continue to cancel Thanksgiving Day shopping hours

By: - November 25, 2021 7:01 am
Closed sign

Tim Mossholder | Unsplash

Remember Christmas shopping on Thanksgiving?

A decade or so ago it seemed like retail’s next big thing. This year — thanks to more than the COVID-19 pandemic — the practice appears to be firmly on the way out.

Jerry O’Brien, UW-Madison

“I don’t expect it to ever go back to where it was three or four years ago,” says Jerry O’Brien, executive director of the Kohl’s Center for Retailing Excellence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “As a matter of fact, I think more and more will decide to close on Thanksgiving.”

Target made headlines with its announcement that not only will it be closed on Thanksgiving this year, but it will make that schedule permanent. When reporting that story, the Associated Press suggested the Minneapolis-based chain store is a likely trend-setter. But whether ahead of the curve or simply running with the crowd, it’s far from the only example.

On lists at Good Housekeeping magazine’s website and the New York Times, the stores planning to open are largely grocery stores (to fill those gaps in the pantry at the last minute) and drugstore chains (for emergency antacid, perhaps).

The practice started the way so many do in business, as a bid to get ahead of the competition.

“Remember when Black Friday actually used to be just a day, not a brand that lasted 30 days?” O’Brien says.

Stores would open earlier and earlier on the day after Thanksgiving, as retailers raced to be the first with shoppers. They reasoned that “the earlier you can get, the better chance you have of grabbing your share,” O’Brien says, and so the wee hours of Friday morning crept back to the late hours of Thursday evening and then late afternoon.

“The first few years, there was some excitement around it,” he says. “Some places did quite well. But when they stepped back and looked at it later, it actually didn’t add a lot of sales to the weekend — it just spread them out.”

Black-Friday-on-Thanksgiving “was an expensive way to not gain a lot of sales,” says O’Brien.

In the meantime, the shopping-after-turkey trend became a favorite bone to pick with the retailing industry for horning in on family time.

“But you know, when you drive by a mall parking lot and it’s full on Thanksgiving, the bashing seems a little empty,” O’Brien observes. Retailers are motivated by what consumers do, he says. “If you truly don’t think retailers should be open on Thanksgiving, and people truly don’t shop — believe me, they won’t be.”

The COVID-19 pandemic rewrote the script. A year ago, with a new wave of cases surging in the fall, many feared Black Friday mobs could be super-spreader events. Besides instituting physical distancing rules for in-person shoppers and promoting remote shopping and contactless pickup, stores dropped Thanksgiving Day hours. And in the 2021 holiday shopping season they haven’t come back.

“I think retailers are saying it’s just not worth it. And it’s better for our employees in a lot of cases to close,” O’Brien says.

He doesn’t expect a comeback, either.

“I think overall we won’t see it again,” O’Brien says. The pandemic’s boost to online purchasing has taken hold, which “makes it a little obsolete anyway” he adds. “If you want to shop on Thanksgiving you can do it on your iPad while you watch the football game.”


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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.