Thursday Is the New Black: No Rest for Workers, Shoppers as Big Box Stores Open on Thanksgiving

By Maggie Cassidy
Valley News Staff Writer

West Lebanon — Box store spokespersons said consumers have demanded it. A workers’ rights advocate called it “a sad state of affairs.” And shoppers out on Route 12A Thursday said they’re grateful for the convenience — but maybe enough is enough.

Black Friday continued its slow take over of the Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday, when at least two of the Upper Valley shopping mecca’s box stores were open by 7 a.m., and another batch opened to long lines in the early evening.

Most kept their doors open overnight, with no plans to close them until tonight, meaning they were open for as many as 41 consecutive hours.

“My kids were asking me, ‘Mom, I thought that Black Friday was supposed to be on Friday?’, ” said Nicole Scrimgeour, of St. Johnsbury, on Thursday afternoon.

She was standing in a tent that she had set up outside Best Buy around 4 a.m.

Camping outside the electronics store to get a jump on Black Friday deals has been a tradition for Scrimgeour for eight years. She even has a tent she uses solely for that purpose. But the start time has crept earlier and earlier, she said, as deals used to start at 5 a.m. Friday, kicked off at midnight last year, and on Thursday, began at 6 p.m. Doors will stay open until 10 p.m. tonight.

Asked what she thought about earlier start times, Scrimgeour said there are pluses and minuses. On one hand, she didn’t have to camp overnight this time, but on the other, she missed her entire Thanksgiving.

If the deals were moved any earlier, though, it would start to get upsetting, she said, as she would need to camp out even earlier.

In any case, she said, “I do what the stores tell me.”

That worries people like Heather Pipino, development coordinator for the Vermont Workers’ Center, a Burlington-based workers’ rights organization, who said it’s a “sad state of affairs … where the consumer culture is going, in terms of taking time away from family.”

In addition to shoppers missing out on time with their family, workers are losing out, as well, she said.

“A lot of workers in these stores don’t get paid time off, vacation, sick days,” she said, calling it a “burden” to have to work on Thanksgiving for corporations that are making huge profits.

“A situation like having to work on Thanksgiving, it’s one of those cases where … is it really necessary to make more money and make working class folks basically do this?” she asked.

But Walmart corporate spokesman Kory Lundberg said the store takes extra strides to make working on Thanksgiving enjoyable and beneficial for employees, such as holiday pay, a 25 percent discount on a single shopping trip, bringing in hot meals for employees, and more.

The fact is that consumers need things on Thanksgiving, he said, and customers have shown that they prefer shopping late on Thanksgiving as opposed to early on Black Friday. The West Lebanon store opened at 7 a.m. Thursday and will close at 10 p.m. tonight.

“Customers told us what they wanted and we responded to them,” he said.

For brick-and-mortar box stores, there may be little choice if they want to compete against the 24/7 world of online shopping, made more attractive with the benefit of free shipping. Whether or not the trend is even profitable for retailers is an open question, given the deep discount in merchandise they have to offer to lure customers into the stores.

Best Buy opened at 6 p.m., and Kohls, Sears, J. C. Penney and Staples opened at 8 p.m. Pipino pointed out that workers would have had to arrive even earlier to set up the stores and prepare for the Black Friday rush.

Grocery stores and fast food restaurants along Route 12A in West Lebanon were serving customers as well.

One of the stores that opened early on Thursday was Kmart, which greeted customers at 6 a.m., two hours earlier than usual. Nationwide, the store has opened during Thanksgiving for the past 22 years, and has opened at 6 a.m. since 2011, according to a corporate spokeswoman, who said the decision to open on Thanksgiving is driven by “feedback from our members … in terms of wanting more flexible times to shop.”

Assistant store manager Armand Boutin, though, said the difference this year is that the store previously closed for several hours on Thanksgiving night and reopened early on Black Friday morning. This year, they’re barreling through until 11 p.m.

Around 2:30 p.m. Thursday, the store was quiet, with only a few people walking in and out. Boutin said there was a burst of foot traffic in the morning and he expected it to return when new deals kicked in that night, after people are done with their “turkey break,” he said.

Boutin, who has worked various shifts on most Thanksgivings since starting at Kmart several years ago, had a “pleasant morning” celebrating the holiday, he said, and was glad to work the 2 to 10 p.m. shift.

Working on Thanksgiving, he said, comes with the territory, and being open benefits the community so that last-minute shoppers and travelers passing through can grab what they need.

Shopper Margaret Ricker, of Lebanon, was doing some Christmas shopping at the store Thursday afternoon. An in-home care worker, she said that the store being open is convenient for her, as it provides a time for her to shop that jibes with her work schedule.

She has to work several holidays as well, she said, and said the best way to make it fair is to have employees rotate through the major holidays each year.

Except for store managers, Kmart workers are prohibited from talking to the media because of company policy.

All Kmart workers are paid time and a half on Thanksgiving, according to the corporate offices. But Pipino said that while some workers might appreciate the opportunity to work, “I’m pretty sure not all the workers would have that be their first choice.”

What Pipino characterized as inadequate working conditions at many box stores — low wages, few or no days off, and the inability to unionize — create an atmosphere where workers are more willing to sacrifice time with their families, she said.

“If you create the conditions in which people are desperate by not paying them well or giving them time off, then yes, you will find people who are willing to work,” she said. “But I don’t think that that’s a trend that we want to be … encouraging, people in our community getting to that place of desperation.”

Pipino agreed with the assertion that consumers are a driving force behind corporations’ decisions about whether or not to open on holidays.

“There’s a role for people to play and just refuse to shop on Thanksgiving day,” she said. “Draw a line on that issue, and I think obviously people’s dollars send a message.”