The Faux Black Friday / Grey Thursday Outrage of 2013

blackfridayA confession: I love to go out to eat on Thanksgiving Day.

The whole tradition started when my parents were spending most of their “holidays” and “spare time” taking care of my grandmother debilitated with Alzheimer’s disease. As my brother, my other grandmother and I were left to our own devices and none of us could suitably cook a not-so-nasty Thanksgiving meal, the holiday buffet at the local Hilton it was. The memorable (and hilarious) lowlight of that meal occurred when the staff accidentally put out a tray of crab bisque in the place of gravy, and – of course – we wound up smothering our entire plates with bisque. Who knew crab bisque looked exactly like turkey gravy?!? Ever since, my brother and I would put on our monkey suits and experience fine dining for the holidays – without the crab bisque. The perks are numerous: (a) not subsisting on cheese plates, walnuts and awkward small talk with unknown relatives while waiting 4-5 hours for dinner; (b) turkey cooked and seasoned correctly; (c) no clean-up; (d) no strange turkey soups, turkey tetrazzini or Food Network turkey leftover experiments for multiple days; and (e) naps are still available afterwards. And then we might possibly go catch a movie …

For the past couple weeks, I have been bemused by the faux Black Friday outrage brewing in the media. Traditionally, the day after Thanksgiving (a/k/a Black Friday) has kicked off the critical Christmas shopping season for retailers. Retail stores typically earn 20-40% of their annual income during the Christmas season. Last year, 247 million Americans shopped during the 3-day Black Friday weekend, spending an average of $423 per shopper. This season, many (if not most) stores have decided to begin their Black Friday sales on Thanksgiving Day. K-Mart is going to be open for 41 hours straight starting 6AM on Thanksgiving. Target will be open at 9PM on Thanksgiving. Wal-Mart and Macy’s will be open on Turkey Day as well. The decision for stores to be open on Thanksgiving day is being publicly shamed as heartless to retail employees, who have come in to work on the holiday. Hasty false promises are being made to “never set foot in that store again” if it’s open on Thanksgiving Day. Angry vows to not shop on Thanksgiving are circulating social media. A recent Huffpost poll found that 62% of Americans believe that retail stores should not be open on Thanksgiving Day, while 27% stated that retail stores should remain open on Thanksgiving Day if there were market demand for it. The term “Grey Thursday” is now being coined for the creep of Black Friday into Thanksgiving Day.

The outrage is a bit odd. For many, many years, retail stores have been opening their doors at the stroke of midnight on Black Friday to the crushing mob of Starbucks-buzzed shoppers clamoring, scratching and fist fighting their way to get a Cabbage Patch Doll or Air Jordan shoes. So what’s so outrageous about these same adrenaline-fueled shoppers with track shoes and tazers crossing the threshold of midnight to maul one another for the hot Christmas present on Thanksgiving Day? What’s so special about holding off to the wee wee hours of the beginning of Black Friday? Will a Christmas elf die for every dollar spent on Thanksgiving Day? Unfortunately, the retail workers have to show up on Thanksgiving Day to prep no matter whether shopping starts at midnight on Black Friday or a couple hours earlier.

The “Grey Thursday” outrage is also somewhat hypocritical. There seems to be no outrage over restaurant employees who sacrifice their time to prepare and serve meals on Thanksgiving. There is no outrage over gas station employees who manage the store while you and I pump gas while flittering over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house. Or grocery store employees that have to deal with frantic home cooks racing to pick up the can of cranberry sauce they forgot. Not to mention the movie theatre staff that will be busy with turkey-filled families lining up for the first showing of the latest Disney movie Frozen or The Hunger Games sequel. Or any number of other blue collar workers whose job just doesn’t stop for any holiday whatsoever. Considering that most people (including me) have eaten numerous restaurant meals on Thanksgiving, bought gasoline numerous times on Thanksgiving, picked up a missing ingredient at a grocery store and watched a couple good (and several bad) movies on Thanksgiving, then where do we draw the line with the philosophy: “Nothing should be open on Thanksgiving”?!?

Unwittingly, we’ve already crossed the rubicon of killing “quality time” on Thanksgiving. The invisible hand of the marketplace has already strangled “quality time” many years ago … We’re just witnessing the aftermath of that victory.

A quote from a GAP, Inc. spokeswoman says it all regarding Grey Thursday: “The response from customers has prompted us to continue opening stores on Thanksgiving.” And that’s it in a nutshell: The invisible hand of the marketplace. Supply and demand. If people weren’t willing to buy on Thanksgiving, retailers wouldn’t be willing to sell on Thanksgiving … And vice versa. For all the media guffaws and internet trolling about Grey Thursday outrage and boycotts, the retailers have most assuredly already run the numbers, collected data and done the market assessments, and they know the truth about our buying habits. Retailers wouldn’t be open on Thanksgiving if they didn’t already know well beforehand that you’d break your “no shopping on Thanksgiving” pledge for a 64 inch flatscreen TV at $399. In 2012, 35 million Americans shopped on Thanksgiving Day, which was up from 29 million in the previous year. I know the HuffPost poll revealed 62% of American don’t believe that retail stores should be open on Thanksgiving Day, but that didn’t take into account whether Best Buy would have an outrageous sale on iPad minis or whether Old Navy was practically giving away flip flops for a dollar apiece. If there’s one thing that will get people to get into more morally questionable contortions than a game of vaseline Twister, it’s a good sale.

The funny part of capitalism is that the invisible hand of the marketplace often gives cultural norms the finger. Whenever economics and personal values clash, money (unfortunately) tends to win out. Case in point: Remember when everything from grocery stores to liquor stores to restaurants used to be closed on Sundays in honor of the Lord’s Day? It wasn’t more than a generation ago that the only thing to do on Sundays was to go to your church or the other church down the street or just be a pagan. A thimble of liquor sold on Sunday was scandalous. Now the only place closed on Sundays is Chic-Fil-A, and I think that most Christians would go there in droves after Sunday worship if it were open. I mean, what good worship service isn’t capped off nowadays with an expensive lunch at Ruby Tuesdays with an embarrassingly bad tip and a tract?!? I’d garner there is probably more outrage nowadays over Chic-Fil-A being closed on Sunday than any other restaurants being open on Sunday. Where is the Sunday “blue laws” outrage? Oh wait … The invisible hand is twisting everything around again …

The problem really isn’t that the literal 24-hour Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, Easter or Sundays are sacrosanct days in themselves. The problem really isn’t that restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations, movie theaters or retail stores are technically open on Thanksgiving Day or any other holiday. The real problem is that consumerism and materialism is winning out over Christ, family and rest. The thought of spending an entire day with extended families gives most folks the rash-inducing heebie-jeebies. The perfunctory pop-in visits with random relatives is perceived as an exhausting chore. People would rather cut off a limb than spend a day in silence without their incessant smart phone status updates and text messages. Let’s not forget about that awkward prayer time before the family meal where Uncle Jim Bob (the “religious” one) stammers through a meandering 2-minute prayer about thankfulness. And God forbid that anyone has to actually read a passage of Scripture on thankfulness or verbally share what they are thankful for (instead of daily listing it out on Facebook). Honestly, most people are anxious to leave their Thanksgiving functions even before they arrive.  

We’re so wired up, wound up and go-go-go that we don’t know how to rest and spend time with Christ and our families anymore. The Bible informs us that need intentional time for rest and recharge, and we incorrectly distort important times of rest, reflection and connecting face-to-face with one another into “wasted moments” (Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12-15; Psalm 127:2). When is the last time you locked up your smart phone and actually held a verbal conversation with a loved one? When is the last time you intentionally connected with your family members? When is the last time you focused on the provision of God and were simply thankful? When is the last time you had the opportunity and privilege to worship God with family? Amidst the hustle and bustle of everyday life, we need more Sabbath than shopping … Our hearts must desire more Savior than sales. There are far more meaningful things to do than flittering your life away in the idolatry of chasing after material stuff that will wind up in the garage or the garbage.

Folks, we have met the enemy and the enemy is us. There’s an honesty found in the free market system, because the invisible hand of the market tends to reveal where our hearts’ desires actually lie. And our desire seems to be buying useless junk. Retail stores don’t do anything that we’re not perfectly willing to do, so there’s no point in blaming the big boxes. For the retail stores to remain closed, our hearts need to change to seek what God desires more than seeking out material goods.

I hope that everyone has a happy Thanksgiving! I’m going to spend some quality time with the Lord and my family … But I’m still going out to eat. Minus the crab bisque.